Mentoring is all about transitions – foreseeing them, preparing for them, managing them and moving on from them. But mentees often don’t recognise how ready they are for a transition. It’s a bit like outgrowing your clothes, but not doing anything about it because you can still squeeze into them! It’s useful for a mentor to have a few tools in their toolbox to make the process of transition more transparent – so here are some that I use when appropriate.
Competence and energy curves
When people start in a new job role, they are usually on a steep learning curve and this learning may continue as they absorb further responsibilities. Eventually, however, they approach the top of the bell curve, where for a period they will be on top of their game. Learning at the top of the curve is incremental and comes mainly from applying their expertise and knowledge to tasks that have some new aspects, but are largely predictable. This period at the top of the curve can be quite short (I have had mentees, for whom its lasts only a few weeks), before they enter into “coast” mode, where the work brings little challenge. Sometimes they compensate by looking for challenge in other areas, outside of their formal job role – for example, taking part in project teams. But the stark truth is that when their role lost its learning potential, they also lost their energy for it.
A more sensible strategy is to monitor where you are on the bell curve. The time to take action is when the roller-coaster starts to slow down as it approaches the top. The two most constructive options at this point are to create a new bell curve by extending the current role into major new responsibilities; or to move to another, separate bell curve in a less connected area.
Mentors can help in this process by:
- Giving feedback on the energy levels they perceive when the mentee talks about their job roles
- Reviewing with the mentee the balance of new learning, applied learning and coasting that the mentee is experiencing (where is the challenge?)
- Raising the mentee’s awareness of how quickly the learning slow-down can happen, so they can monitor where they are on the curve
- Helping them plan how they will launch themselves onto a new bell curve, with or without moving jobs
When it’s clear it’s time to move on…
Three planning processes can be valuable here. The first is the mentee’s “bucket list” – the things that they still want to achieve before they move on. Useful mentoring questions here include:
- What makes this so important for you to achieve?
- Do you need to achieve completion, or simply lay the foundations, for your successor to build on? (Ego can play a major role here, leading people to stay in role far too long!)
- Having identified the issue are you really the best person to resolve it?
The second process is “letting go”. We all hoard tasks that we could have delegated and/or which have lost their learning potential. Identifying these and letting them go can speed progress up the bell curve – but it also releases time and energy the mentee can invest in creating their next curve. It’s been compared to clearing the attic and indeed one way to identify issues for this process is to draw a picture with tasks, activities and responsibilities as boxes in an imaginary attic.
The third process is the mentee’s “legacy” – what they want to leave behind them. Some people seem to be obsessed with their legacy from the moment they start a leadership role. That’s not healthy, but looking to what you’d like to leave behind, when you are preparing to move on, can be very cathartic and typically leads people to focus on what’s important, not just for themselves, but for the organisation. Talking about their legacy with a mentor opens up the potential to share it with direct reports and other stakeholders, and to gain their support and engagement.
Mentors can help mentees reflect upon and create a working document to address each of these Issues. They can challenge the mentee’s motivations and assumptions, and help them search for the next bell curve. And they can be there, encouraging in the background, as the steep ascent of that learning curve begins.