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Earl R Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

Initial meetings in any mentoring engagement set the tone and tenor for the rest of the engagement. Getting it right has a great impact on how the work is going to go and how successful the engagement will be.


During my years working as a mentor I have developed a number of useful tools that help me survive and thrive in the world of one-on-one, high impact mentoring. One that is particularly useful is a checklist that guides a new client and me through the process of designing a customized approach.

The checklist has become part of my ‘survival kit’ – a collection of tools and ideas that help me consistently produce results with clients that are highly educated, mentally agile, and very literate – who are accustomed to directing the action rather than participating in it or being directed by it. Here I want to discuss some of the purely prophylactic items on the list and one proactive item – all of which have proven their value over and over again.

What I Avoid:

Early on I learned an important lesson – others may be; but I am not fit for marketing a ‘one size fits all’ approach to mentoring. I shy away from mentoring systems which are designed to benefit ‘everybody’. Mentors and coaches who follow this or that ‘system’ always remind me of a favorite saying of Lotfi Zadeh (the father of fuzzy logic) – “When all you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.” I regularly encounter people who have been obsessively ‘hammered on’ in one way or another.

My own approach to mentoring begins with the assumption that general prescriptions (homilies) are ineffective when it comes to highly educated, literate people - most of whom are very skilled at gaming life and, by derivation, have raised the necessary process of self-delusion to a high art. ‘Packaged goods’ are insulting to these types. People who have thrived by recognizing how wonderfully complex and diverse life is – and by developing an understanding of how to relish and effectively deal with these complexities – are not likely to be long entranced with generalist proscriptions. So here is one item on my list: Don’t insult your client’s intelligence by attempting to sell them COTS solutions to their individual problems. It is the client’s needs rather than the mantra that should be center stage.

The search for an engagement focus cannot come out of a book written by someone else about nobody in particular. Begin the engagement by helping a client search out their challenges and then to confront those challenges directly and forcefully. People - particularly well educated, successful and highly literate people - tend to see themselves in a ‘mostly proactively positive’ light. Mentoring begins with a challenge to some part of this self-image – either by the mentor or (preferably) by the client. For the most part their self-image is probably an accurate reflection but, as they say, the devil is in the details. And good mentoring begins with the details – or, more properly, a carefully selected detail. In highly effective mentoring, substance always trumps form.

When it comes to a mentoring/client relationship, trust either is or isn’t. If it isn’t you don’t have a client you have an adversary. Each new relationship (including a mentoring engagement) is seen as a challenge to their ability to figure out the new game and how to win. But in mentoring it is very important that the relationship not be reduced to a zero sum game. As a result of the mentoring engagement, there is a new sheriff in town – and everybody needs to check their zero-sum revolvers at the town limits. The client needs to trust the mentor enough to follow his guidance and mostly abide by his rules. He has to be willing to join in a common journey as a student of his new mentor. The engagement needs to be a common journey in service of the best interests of the client – and on that journey the mentor is the guide.

I figure that most of my clients at one time or another played a lot of monopoly – and won most of the time. One reason is that they seem to have a real appreciation for the ‘get out of jail free’ card – and like to have a fair stock of them on hand just in case. To say it another way, highly educated and successful people tend to be very good at rationalizing (and forgiving) their shortcomings.[1] The old saying that “I have never met anyone capable of telling it straight; including me” might bring the idea into focus for you. By a simple sleight of hand they are free, and self-justified in being free, of any responsibility for their actions. A mentor needs to aggressively enforce the idea of personal accountability - on your terms not theirs – otherwise you are lost and the engagement is as well.

I would guess that most of my clients also have a quiet appreciation for the TV show ‘The Apprentice’. Once they accumulate a bit of ‘go to hell money’ there is always the option of just shutting it down and moving on. I have noticed that the better off are far more pain averse than those living closer to the subsistence level. When most of my clients enter into a mentoring relationship they always have recourse to the nuclear option – you’re fired! But an engagement is not about whether you are fired. It is about whether the client is growing emotionally and professionally.

Good mentoring redefines the rules of the game so that the ‘nuclear option’ becomes a way for either side to shut down an engagement that is not producing results. As part of this process, the mentor needs to lay out the rules and expectations at the very beginning. Define and display the intention to strongly enforce the bright lines that are your boundaries. If they are repeatedly transgressed (even with the express purpose of bringing the engagement to a close) you need to walk away.

How I Find a Place to Start:

The first major question that a mentor faces – before even deciding to take on an individual as a client – is ‘where is the best initial focus for the engagement?’ This is a very tricky area. For me, the basic criteria for a good beginning are that it …

  • starts with something that matters,
  • is focused on a behavior change that can be managed within a relatively short series of sessions,
  • involves the adoption of the new behavior which will produce significant results, and
  • will result in a clear demonstration of the benefits of intentionally managed change

Let me take these criteria in order. Whenever you begin by targeting a behavior which is self-sabotaging, you explicitly criticize the client – suggest that they are acting (sometimes purposefully) against their own self-interests and those of the people that they supposedly care about. This first step involves considerable risk and sometimes the client/mentor relationship ends because of it. You are, after all, bringing into question fondly held beliefs about this person’s self-knowledge and reputation and role in the world. The truth is that you have to be ready to take that risk and sometimes, in the face of feigned indignity, to return the deposit, cancel the engagement and move on.

The important thing is to focus the initial sessions in a way that matters. (An old friend of some character used to tell people he’d just met “I would prefer that you don’t talk, but if you must talk at least have the common decency to prattle on about something that matters”.) I was always amazed at how frequently his visitors rose to the occasion and co-authored truly interesting conversations. (But that’s another story for another time)

The first important gift that the mentor gives a client is the demonstrated courage to go into those inside places that the client has been hesitant to enter. Here I am reminded of an episode of Kung Fu. Kang was taken prisoner by a bully that maintained a pit full of rattlesnakes as a threat. He broke the power of the threat (and the bully) by jumping into the pit and walking across it. Confront the fear, not the individual that lives under its threat. The demystification of the “oh no - we don’t go there” is a gift of life-changing proportions and the gateway through which all successful efforts of behavior change must pass. To be able to show how that journey can be made without self-recrimination - but with healing and growth - is an even rarer gift.

Whatever the starting point, it must matter in the life and fortunes of the client. The initial sessions need to define the value of the mentoring relationship and lead the client to want more – to see new vistas opening up – new futures as possible.

But ‘life changing’ is best left to the cumulative effects of an extended mentoring relationship. It is critical that the initial sessions narrowly focus on a behavior change that can be managed within a relatively short time. I suspect that mentors who violate this requirement are often seen as having over hyped the benefits that mentoring can bring. What is sad about this is that the benefits could probably have been generated – but not as instantly as the brochure, website and elevator speech leads one to believe.

Begin with a focus that is important enough to the client that they are at least slightly hesitant to enter upon it. Then define the program for the initial sessions in such a way as to attack a manageable challenge. Make sure that the objectives are clearly understood and constitute a set of goals that the client will commit to.

A physics professor of mine was fond of saying that “if you can’t measure it, it ain’t!” Although no longer true in particle physics or cosmology it is still and ever true in mentoring. The importance and benefits of mentoring results have to be clearly perceived by the client – particularly in the early months of an engagement.

The work is going to be hard (it gets easier) and the going slow (the pace picks up). The accumulating benefits resulting from painfully slogging through the swamp of one’s self-created-self-image are often the only comforting salves to be had. The engagement’s first set of negotiated goals have to involve the adoption of the new behavior which will produce relatively rapid, highly significant and measurable results.

Finally, it is important to remember that mentoring is fundamentally about building a trusting relationship that facilitates real and enduring behavior change – behavior change which is both measurable and scalable. The results of the initial sessions should become a symbol of the benefits that intentionally managed change can bring to a client’s life experience. Later on the client and mentor can lengthen out the stride and take on bigger challenges that require longer efforts – but in the beginning, when trust is being built – it is a good idea to stay with challenges that can be met and overcome within a couple of months.

Real Change Requires Real Change

High impact mentoring of highly educated, mentally agile, and very literate people can be very rewarding – but there are some risks and down sides. One of the greatest risks is that the work with the client focuses on a virtual rather than real change. As I said above, in effective mentoring substance always trumps form. A second risk comes with the human tendency to attenuate effort after the first few days. I have had clients absolutely rave about a particular epiphany only to have them revert to old behaviors within a week or two. Short term endorphin highs do not constitute real change. The mentor, not the client, is principally responsible for making sure that insights becomes habits.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

[1] I don’t want to give you the impression that I am dismissing the value of the very human ability to forgive oneself for being human. Without such ability we are all far less human. But as the Oracle at Delphi says: “Nothing too much.” Along with “Know Thyself” – a potent proscription.

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