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Earl R Smith II, PhD

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My mentoring practice frequently brings me into contact with people with huge amounts of untapped potential who are being stymied by self-limiting behavior. Over the years probably two-thirds of my initial conversations with potential mentoring clients have begun with a focus on whether or not the individual sees themselves as deserving (feels worthy of) the attention and support of a professional mentor.

The various assumptions that underlie this self doubt are legion. They range from ‘I have to do this on my own otherwise it is not legitimate’ to ‘I am not important enough to warrant the attention of an experienced mentor’. One of my favorite rationales is “I don’t have time to work with a mentor”. This one is roughly equivalent to saying “I’m too busy driving to have the time to stop for gas.”

Many individuals have spent years caught in the headlights of their own onrushing locomotive. Over and over again many of these people have approached the possibility of real change only to turn back. In each case they defend a decision which is equivalent to fighting a life or death contest without the services of an experienced professional guide.

Think about it for a minute. You are never going to pass this way again. All you will have is what you can make of the opportunities which come before you. As the old saying goes ‘fortune favors the prepared mind’. Preparation is always the key to being able to take advantage of the chances that life offers. Not training to take advantage of those chances borders on the criminal. And it’s not just your life that is affected, but the lives of everyone who cares for or depends on you for the quality of theirs.

What You Deserve Vrs. What You Need

Dealing with, or more properly failing to deal with, self-sabotaging behavior is often the major reason that individuals continue to experience a life which is far less than optimal. Time and again I have listened to a client, who has finally made a real breakthrough wondering, aloud why they spent so much time wandering, unguarded, in the wilderness - how much the better they feel now that they have focus and direction. I just smile and suggest that it makes no sense to try to explain ‘then’ in terms of ‘now’.

That last idea is an important one. Now makes sense in terms of now. But real change requires real change. Once you accomplish that real change, the way you were then seems to make less sense in terms of who you are now. Confused? Well, let’s try a very old Chinese proverb.

As the story is told, there is a blood oath among all dragonfly larvae. Each swears that, once they have traveled across the boundary from the water that has nurtured them to whatever lies beyond (air) that they will come back and tell all the others that were left behind what it is like. But, of course, none ever has!

But with humans there is a way out of this dilemma. Where some have gone they can return and help others make the same journey – and make it more easily and productively. As humans we can learn by experience and teach others our hard earned lessons. And that journey begins with a redefinition of the question at the beginning of this column. “Do I deserve a mentor?” becomes “Why do I continue to deny myself those things which will help me have a better life?” You see it isn’t a question of what you deserve but how much better your 

life will be because of what you allow yourself to have.

You are the architect of your own life or its demolition squad. It is your choice and no one else’s.

All my mentoring clients have made the journey from being transfixed by the suspicion that they don’t deserve a mentor to the widening horizons that come with having given themselves the gift of being supported. They came to realize that by not engaging a mentor they were sabotaging their own potential and sacrificing their quality of life to an ill thought out aspect of their self image. In short, they decided to be supportive of their own self interests. But mostly they have accepted that real change requires a commitment to making real changes.

Getting Started - A Few Simple Rules

Let’s say that you are willing to entertain the possibility that you could benefit from the support of a mentor. Let’s also assume that you have spent some time identifying areas that you would like to start working on. You are able to talk clearly and openly about those areas and the progress that you would want to make. How would you go about deciding which mentor would fit your needs – which one you would find working with productive?

Seek out those people who have engaged a mentor and ask them about their experiences. Your first surprise may come when you learn how many people – particularly successful people – have a mentor. Some of them have probably tried multiple mentors before they found the one which suits their needs. Talk to them about those experiences and try to learn from their mistakes and successes.

Remember that you are unique and that your needs are going to be different from those people who have successfully engaged with a mentor. But the process is going to be much the same. The process of developing a relationship with a mentor is as much the responsibility of the student as the teacher. Be prepared to discover blind alleys and unproductive engagements. Keep in mind that the matching of a client with a mentor is a human process and that success comes as a result of efforts from both sides. The good rule here is that in order to know you must try. In order to win you must face the possibility of failure. The right mentor for you is out there. You just need to persevere in the search.

The first few sessions of any mentoring engagement are critical to its eventual success. Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful:

Getting Acquainted

Every relationship begins with a get acquainted meeting and mentoring is no different. You should start with the assumption that you’ll have to go through more than one of these sessions before you find a mentor that you can work with. Try to organize these on neutral ground and in a relaxed location – sometimes meeting for drinks after hours or coffee during the weekend.

There are two principal objectives of these initial meetings. The first is a search for the answer to “Can I trust this person to bring value to my life?” Most often this is described as the chemistry of the relationship. The second is a search for a starting point. By the end of this first session you should have a relatively well defined agreement as to where the focus will be for the first six to nine months of the engagement.

Most get acquainted sessions are stumbling attempts. I have learned that nothing much can be done about this. Two people are working to define a common language and evolve a focus in service to one of them. There is nothing to do but do it and see how it goes.

Don’t try too big a thing at first

If I am working with a CEO and their company, I often suggest that we begin work on a relatively tactical issue. One engagement began with a focus on how the CEO was organizing and managing staff meetings. By choosing such a starting point we were able to develop a basis for good communication, establish a trusting relationship and manage a measurable improvement within a couple of months.

If I am working with an individual to help them refocus their life, I find that the same strategy works just as well. We pick something that is important but not so close to the individual’s self-image that talking about it is going to trigger all sorts of defensive responses. Twice recently I have started this kind of engagement with a focus on the difficulty the client was having in developing long term relationships.

The point here is that during the initial stages of a mentoring engagement, much like the initial stages of a friendship, the relationship is not sufficiently close or robust to deal with anything approaching ‘heavy lifting’. To attempt to large a focus too early will endanger an engagement that, given time to develop, might turn out to be highly productive.

Trust is the foundation

In Zen Buddhism the rule is the teacher can teach each if the student is willing to trust them. Once that trust is established, truly amazing things can be accomplished. The student, with the help of the teacher, can learn to soar in ways they never thought possible. Trust in a mentor can lead a client to making a leap of faith that they would never consider if they were unsupported. But in the early stages of an engagement it is important to recognize that this trust has yet to be developed and that its development is a primary early objective.

From a client’s point of view a fair measure of how well the engagement is going and whether or not you should continue with a particular coach is how much you trust their judgment. By the time you have worked through your first set of objectives you should have a very strong feeling as to whether or not this is someone you can trust.

Honesty has to be the coin of the realm

I remember Moms Mabley used to say “I’d rather pay a young man’s airfare from New York to Los Angeles then tell an ol’ man the distance.” That kind of stuck with me over the years. But then Moms was also fond of saying, “There ain’t nothin’ an ol’ man can do but bring me a message from a young one.” That used to seem funnier some years ago – but that is another story for another time!

Some time ago I decided that the way to help people was to go right at the problem and help them face it rather than diverting their attention from it. Brian Roberts, a good friend and host of ABC radios “Taking Care of Business” and CEO of Croix Connect once said about me “Dr. Smith is a very different kind of mentor. If you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy adviser, this is the wrong guy for you. But if you are dedicated to change and want to be challenged by a very experienced mentor Earl may be just what you are looking for.” If you’re not getting directness and honesty from your mentor, don’t waste your money – write Dear Abby.

Insistence on personal responsibility

With mentoring, as with life, you get out of it what you put into it. And the principle thing that you put into mentoring is an insistence on taking personal responsibility for your actions and the results of the engagement. This is not something that you can finesse. It is certainly not something that a good mentor should allow you to get away with. But it is not up to the mentor to insist that you live up to your commitments and standards – it is up to you.

For some of my clients who have had difficulty in developing long-term relationships or in keeping their commitments I have developed an approach which has proved highly productive. I have the student buy a small notepad which they carry around in their pocket. Every time they make a commitment, they take out the notepad and write it down. During our mentoring sessions we use the notebook as a guide. At first they tend to be rather spotty in the process of making notes. But after awhile they discover the massively positive effect on their lives – and of becoming known as someone who takes their commitments very seriously. Eventually the notebook becomes unnecessary as the client has developed an insistence on taking personal responsibility for their life and their commitments.

Focus on what is important

In the movie Finding Forrester Sean Connery was given a wonderful line. When his young student asked him a very serious question, Forrester replies “That’s not what you would call a soup question.” By that the author meant that it wasn’t a question like “What kind of soup do you want?” Good mentoring begins with a focus on the important and burrows its way to the central.

You are the gatekeeper when it comes to this issue. It is your courage to face the important challenges rather than waste your time and the mentors on the ‘soup questions’ of life. It is also your responsibility to gauge the courage of your mentor. If they cannot seem to bring themselves to go with you to the places you need to go then you need to think hard about getting another mentor.

Intellectual understanding is not behavior change

Progress in a productive coaching engagement is a measure of actual and sustained behavior change. Many mentors seem to think that achieving an intellectual understanding of a particular challenge is equivalent to having mastered it. Anybody who has tried to break a bad habit knows that not to be the case. Real change requires sustained effort to supplant the negative with a positive. I am reminded of the old maxim “They that can’t do teach”. Life is not an intellectual exercise and good mentoring generates behavior change. For most of us the way to understand economics is not through a university classroom but through engaging in a business and viscerally experiencing its impact.

Avoid the simple, quick fixes and packaged ideologies

I know mentors who have built their practice on a particular test or structured approach. Some tests are useful in a mentoring engagement but it is important that they only be seen as generating data that the mentor and the client can then work on. Many of these practitioners see the results of the tests as the final product - the final judgment on their client. You should avoid these people. They often have more interest in worshiping the pristine logic of their approach than helping you grow.

I even know one individual who is absolutely certain that the incredible diversity of humankind can be reduced to minor variations on eight categories. I don’t know about you but I find it grossly offensive when an individual who has just met me begins to tell me who I am before they have spent any effort trying to find out who I am. Most people are offended by such treatment. You should be on your guard and avoid them because they don’t care who you are – only how you fit into their scheme.

The good rule here is to avoid engaging a coach who focuses on their system and select one that focuses on you. The mentor is in service to you – you are not in service to the mentor’s ideology. After all, you are the client and you are paying the fee.

Your growth is the primary goal

And finally it is important early on to establish the metrics against which progress in the engagement is going to be measured. If you’re interviewing a mentor who wants to remain fuzzy on the idea of metrics, it is probably a good idea to walk away and look elsewhere. A reputable coach will be happy to work with you to establish those metrics so that you can balance the cost of the mentoring against the progress you’re making.

Remember that the core purpose of a mentoring engagement is to help you grow and experience a life that you are capable of but not actually achieving.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

I look back on the first three months of my work with Dr. Smith with wonder. My journal reflects a journey of self-discovery so vast that I hardly recognize the person who wrote the first entries. It's been a year now and I am happier now than I have ever been.

PJ, Mentoring Client

"It's the most amazing experience I have ever had. I needed to find a new path. A friend recommended Dr. Smith. What was most amazing was the wisdom and perception that he brought. New vistas have opened up and, as a result, a new chapter in my life. There's no way that I could put a value on what he has contributed to my life."

Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur

"Chief - that's how Dr.Smith was introduced to me and, based on our work together, I have come to understand why - helped me focus on the possibilities that I had been missing in my life. He guided through developing a new vision for my life. My life is richer because of working with him."

Mentoring Client

"Earl is a wise mentor with lots of experience. He has a great way of explaining things and getting you to look at them from another perspective. Dr. Smith is a tough mentor, but, if you can learn just some of what he knows, your life will change forever."

Mentoring Client, Deloitte

“Dr. Smith is a very different kind of mentor. If you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy adviser, this is the wrong guy for you. But if you are dedicated to change and want to be challenged by a very experienced mentor Earl may be just what you are looking for.”

CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’

“Dr. Smith's mentorship has been of great value and inspiration to my personal and professional development. I felt the need to take a new direction. He helped me sort out the possibilities and showed me ones that I never considered. Working with him has been a truly life-changing experience.”

Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions