I was asked the other day, “What do you focus on as a mentor?”
I responded, “I help people make transformational journeys.”
“And what does that mean,” was the response?
The exchange got me to thinking about the mentoring work I do and why it is important to the people I work with. Here is what I came up with.
Charting a New Course: Most people who come to me, either because they read something I wrote or were referred by a friend, have had successful careers. They have reached a point in their lives where they are feeling a need to get more out of life. Maybe that’s the result of accumulating frustration with the outcomes they are experiencing. Or they have begun to think that it’s time to find a new direction. In each case, they are looking to get more out of their lives.
A very successful executive came to me with mounting frustration about a pattern of negative outcomes from interactions with subordinates. She had begun to suspect that her own behaviors were driving those outcomes. It wasn’t a matter of changing direction but of fine tuning her understanding. After an initial consultation, I decided that I could help.
During our initial sessions, it became clear that her situational awareness was the problem. She responded reflexively; particularly to situations that either generated, or offered the possibility of generating, conflict. The results of these encounters were entirely predictable. Both left the field with a feeling of antagonism and resentment.
I introduced a concept – compromising up – that set her on a path of awakening to possibilities that were continuously being overlooked. The idea was simple. Whenever she found herself in such a situation, take time to stop and think. “How can I add to the possibility of a better outcome?”
The idea was new to her. She had reflexively asked the question, “Why is this so difficult?” By transforming that question into a ‘How’, she was able to change her initial response. Over time, as she developed the capacity to think ‘how’ rather than ‘why’. The results of these encounters began to change.
Over time, she started to see how many opportunities there were in each day to compromise up. The impact of this idea spread from her business life into her personal side. Our sessions became a celebration of the abundance of opportunities to compromise up.
Then another realization set in. The very people who were the source of these frustrating results started to change their approach to responding. Compromising up was contagious.
Frank came to me frustrated with the repetitiveness of his life. He had been on the same career path for a couple of decades. The challenge wasn’t the work or his interactions with his fellow travelers. He could do the work without thinking. It was that easy. Well liked by everybody he worked with, there was no tension. His concern was deeper. “There has to be something more to my life. I’ve done this well. Now I want to spend the next part of my life doing something different.
He had built two very successful businesses. Sold one of them at a price that insured he would never want for money. “I have more than I will ever need,” was the way he put it.
The first idea that I introduced was a ‘life board of directors’. The idea is simple. Frank would assemble a group that knew him very well to advise on the question of a new course. His initial reaction was skeptical. “I don’t know those kinds of people. The ones I know will just laugh at me for asking.”
But I persisted and he, under protest, began to pull together a list and think about how they might help. The results were eye opening. It turned out that Frank’s blind spot was his narrow view of those closest to him.
His initial discussion with a potential life board member started with a surprise. When he outlined his frustration and desire to change course, the response was, “Yeah, I’ve seen that in you for a couple of years now and was wondering when you would get around to it.”
“What do you mean,” Frank asked with some confusion.
“Look, I know you well and have watched the growing frustration and disinterest. Sooner or later, I figured that you would come to the realization that it was time to head off in a new direction. Let me tell you about my journey and how I dealt with the same situation.”
The next hour was an incredible experience for Frank. He not only learned that his friend understood his situation far better than he had anticipated. He learned that there was more to his friend that he had thought.
Over the period of several months I helped Frank build and engage with his life board of directors. Opportunities opened. The vision for his life expanded. Old ways of looking at himself and his life were cast away.
In the end, Frank made a radical change. He sold his second company and now runs a bare-boat rental operation on an island in the Caribbean. And his first member of the life board considers, with some envy, Frank to be one of the luckiest people on the planet.
It is certain that neither of these examples apply to you. But the lesson does. The life you are leading is not the only option and the range of opportunities is far greater than you think. You can choose to live a more fulfilling and productive life – one that fits who you are. It is your choice. No one can make it for you.
So, this is what I do as a mentor. I help people discover the potential for their lives. Set new courses, wander down paths that they never thought were there. Become the person who they always could become. And why do I do it? Certainly not for the money. But for the joy of helping another human being find their footing and set off on a journey of self-discovery. The currency of life is the contributions you make to the lives of others.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
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