Earl R Smith II, PhD


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It is a typical conversation which generally comes more than once during the initial months of most of my mentoring engagements. The client – generally younger and less experienced than I am – will insist that something is beyond their capability. I will insist that it isn’t. And so I urge them to attempt – and they demure.

  • You can do this!
  • ~~~~~ No I can’t!
  • It isn’t rocket science – just think it through and do it
  • ~~~~~ But what if I screw it up?
  • Then we will have proven that, contrary to your self-image, you are human after all (grin)

Sometimes this conversation comes when they are preparing for a major meeting – sometimes it precedes a conversation with a subordinate who needs to accept a new vision of his role. Each time it is a source of apprehension – mostly because:

  • There is something important at stake
  • It is something which the they have never done before or done badly in the past
  • I know that they are going to attempt it – an aware audience can be daunting – but also motivating

Trying new things – attempting new approaches to complex challenges – can be daunting. Everybody has their comfort zone and, by definition, these forays involve movement outside of that zone. But it is far easier and far more likely to end up positively if you have an experienced mentor working with you. Here are a few of the steps which I help my clients work through:

  • Define the challenge: Let’s get a really good understanding of what needs to be done
  • Evolve the metrics: How are we going to measure results and determine success or failure – let’s get it clear
  • Define success: What will a successful effort mean – what will be the results most desired?
  • Strategic into tactical: Now let’s work out a plan to achieve that success – starting from today and planning every step which needs to be made. This approach works particularly well when the challenge is a discrete event such as a meeting or discussion with a subordinate
  • Define the metrics for success at each step: We generally end up with something that looks a lot like a Gantt chart – with starting and ending points for each step along the way and milestones for each major accomplishment
  • Design the monitoring process: This is one which most of my clients tend to overlook at first. How are you going to track your progress and who are you going to review that progress with – and how often? The idea here is to be accountable to someone for your progress
  • Sharing the plan: Who are you going to share the plan with and what are their roles going to be in the process? It is particularly important to identify critical contributions and the steps necessary to guarantee them
  • Resourcing the process: What resources – funding, meetings, materials, etc. are you going to need? What arrangements are needed to make them available?
  • Contextualizing the challenge: How does this particular challenge fit into the broader picture? Is this one a variation on others which you have successfully met in the past?
  • The ongoing postmortem: The process of review continues throughout the effort – up to, through and after the challenge. The key lesson is flexibility and adaptability – you do, then review, then modify plans, then move forward. The review session generally produce a great deal of insight – personal epiphanies.

As the saying goes ‘fortune favors the prepared mind’. By helping people through new challenges, I increase the probability that they will have a successful experience – and successful experiences are the very foundation of a building confidence which leads to mastery of what, at first, appeared, beyond them.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD