I recently had the honor of facilitating a management seminar at one of our military facilities. Like most civilian (and optical) organizations, it was experiencing many challenges. One in particular really hit home as it related to our industry. One of the managers’ chief complaints was the fact that as the senior welders are nearing retirement, there is simply no one qualified to take their place. The organization had missed the boat in terms of training, planning, and especially mentoring. It had no individual or group mentoring relationships in place. Surely the staff and the organization will suffer. Surely most eye care practices are in the same boat. What can we do to ensure that as we expand our practices and retire, staff members will be prepared to take their skills – and the practice we have worked so hard to build – to the next level?
The mentoring process requires a commitment of time, energy, and planning. It is a process of development, not a shoot-from-the-hip, casual thing. The successful mentoring plan is built on three, fundamental components: mutual trust and commitment, patient leadership, and emotional maturity of all parties involved.
Invest in the lives of your team members. Learn who they are, use their names, ask about their families, hobbies, interests, aspirations, and struggles. While there is a fine line of not getting too involved in their personal lives and avoiding the role of psychologist or guidance counselor, showing interest in your staff members helps build relationships based on mutual trust, respect, and rapport. Encourage team members to determine their own personal strengths. Have them identify what they like about themselves, and build on their strengths in the practice. Point to past successes to build on them; analyze past challenges to avoid recurring mistakes. Review the actions that led to success; praise commitment to excellence.
Encourage discussion of problems and concerns. Ask the team member to identify and analyze any perceived weaknesses and plan for areas of improvement. Be nonjudgmental. Start to incorporate team-building strategies in practice meetings. Plan internal activities that are designed to build trust and cooperation as well as external, offsite events that build morale and excitement. Recognize success and show appreciation often; nurture and build up team members individually. Provide consistent support and stand behind your team members. Encourage risk-taking and creative thinking. Make it safe for your team to think outside the box. Most importantly, show no tolerance for blame after failure; foster a learn-and-grow attitude.
As you plan to set up a mentoring relationship with an individual ECP or for an entire practice, consider the following 10 guidelines:
1. Plan Ahead. One of the main reasons a mentoring relationship or mentoring program fails is due to lack of planning. As the mentor/leader, ask yourself, “What is our purpose here?” Once you have a mutual understanding of what needs to be accomplished, planning becomes much easier.
2. Gain Support from Upper Management and Employees. If a practice manager or optician starts a mentoring program or relationship but the subordinates involved in it know that the practice owners don’t really take it seriously, success (while not impossible) is much harder to achieve. The best way to gain support from employees is to involve them in every step of the process. This will provide a sense of ownership and achieve group and individual buy-in.
3. Make Sure the Work Environment is a Healthy One. The point here is do not begin a mentoring relationship or try to start a mentoring program if the overall environment in the practice is an unhealthy one. Does mistrust and low morale best characterize the office climate? If the answer is yes, that needs to be addressed before the mentoring process begins.
4. Have Specific Goals. The best way to see a mentoring relationship go down in flames is to not have specific goals. The goals should be specific, measureable, realistic, and time-driven; think “x” to “y” by “when.” Once the goals have been mutually arrived at and agreed upon, the next step is for the mentor and protégé to come up wit specific actions to help achieve those goals. In all relationships between management and subordinates, one of the biggest complaints from subordinates is a lack of clarification of expectations. Don’t make the same mistake here.
5. Allow Work Time Whenever Possible. Many times people involved in mentoring relationships work on those relationships on their “own” time. While there is nothing wrong with working on the mentoring relationship before or after work, allowing paid office time for the mentor and protégé to work on goals, hold meetings and discussions sends a very powerful and clear message to the people involved: It is important!
6. Link Goals to the Mission and Values of the Organization.
7. Make it Easy on Yourself. What I mean by this is when you set up a mentoring relationship or program, don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. People way smarter than you or me (well, at least me) have done it. Why not learn from them? Do some research on the Internet, read a book or two, and find a program that seems to fit with your personality and the personality of the practice. A couple of the best resources in this regard are The Manager’s Role as Coach, published by National Press Publications, and Mentoring 101 by the respected leadership guru, John C. Maxwell.
8. Opt for a Formal Structure – at Least at First. While I’m not a rigid, by-the-book guy, realize that it’s always easier to move from a formal structure to a less formal one than vice-versa.
9. Consider Ownership Every Step of the Way. While it’s sometimes an overused word or concept, a true leader understands its real importance. Giving employees a sense of everything you are trying to achieve should be paramount in your planning and execution of the mentoring relationships. How do you do that? Involve them every step of the way. Make it a democracy as best you can.
10. Evaluate: Early and Often. Monitor the progress off the mentoring relationships at least monthly. This will send a positive message to those involved, and never forget that what gets measured usually gets done.
Start to incorporate some of these criteria into the relationships between the experienced and inexperienced, and you will start to have a real succession plan in place at your practice. And having a real succession plan helps to ensure the enduring success of the practice itself.