Tuesday, August 22, 2006


When we say mentoring, we normally think of CEOs mentoring their Protégé, senior managers mentoring people with high management potential. These are stereotypical examples. Mentoring is not confined to only these. In fact, mentoring  can be done by almost anybody. Everyone of us know something about something that another person probably does not know. We can become their mentors.

One of the areas that I have personally benefited from mentoring is the area of accountability. Holding someone accountable is important because accountability is one of the necessary factors for success. Accountability also cuts the other way. When we have to make some one accountable, we have to ask some questions and drive towards some commitment and agreement. Many times  people who  ask  the questions are at some higher level (our boss or teacher etc.). When questions required to enforce accountability are asked point blank many times they can be very intimidating and seem very insensitive and attacking. When they sound differently than intended, they may render the person immobile or defensive or anything else other than what you want him or her to be that is accountable.

Another pitfall of asking direct questions on accountability is that you would only hear what the other persons thinks you would like to hear. You ask when something will be done. They you hear some 'ah's and 'oh's. You feel impatient and ask the most dreadful question 'how much are you done?'. If you ask a software engineer, answer invariably is 90% and remaining 10% takes another 90% of the time. Not a useful question.

Sometimes people just become defensive and say most irritating 'I don't know'. They are not incorrect.  But, we are not in our best behavior either in becoming irritated at their 'I do not know'. Both are wrong here. 'I do not know' when uttered without something to follow to make it look positive will make you come across as someone who does not do his/her homework or not ready to take additional responsibility and what not.

One of my former mentors was very good at recognizing above problems. Being an engineering manager, he had few direct reports including me. He never used to ask seemingly intimidating questions such as 'when it will be done?' 'how much is done?' I think he was too smart for such dumb questions. He always asked for written status every week. So, even if someone did not feel comfortable in raising difficult issues ( such delays, problems etc) in person with him, they could hide behind status reports. He was way too good at scanning even some of the most verbose status reports and hone in on risks. That was an impressive skill. He used to make note of such risks and invariably used casual conversations to know more about the risk without even you realizing that he is getting all the project updates when you felt you were having a casual lunchtime or water cooler discussion.

Even when he needed to talk about project related things. He took enough time to make a small talk and somewhere he made you talk about the project and status on your own. The very fact that he listened with 100% attention itself made people so comfortable with him that they just opened up. 30 minutes spent with him and people reeling under all sorts of project related stress came out refreshed.

For engineers, it is very difficult to answer questions especially related to schedule, completion etc. without giving adequate explanation. It really bothers them when we ask point blank questions and give an impression that you just care about the bottom line and not the info behind the answers. You may say 'no excuses' but engineers say 'these  are not excuses but explanations.' If you are interested in getting to the bottom of the issue, do put up with explanations even when you feel you do not need them. Lame excuses - of course make a no excuse rule.

This mentor of mine always asked most of the questions not related to the actual milestone. In answering and deliberating on the questions related to activities making up the milestone, he got the status, he got the update on risks and engineers gave the best update without feeling intimidated. At such a nice environment at the end when the manager asked questions about completion we were so relaxed  we did not feel that we had to cover ourselves on the dates we were committing. We committed dates to the best of our knowledge because we felt the person had enough appreciation for the explanations we provided regarding risks etc. Most of the time we lived up to commitments just because when we were so relaxed we could quickly take into account most of the things and provide the most accurate estimate. The manager was a strict follower of management-by-walking-around. As  he fostered open  and non-intimidating culture, he got new updates on daily basis when he ked around.

Since we felt so comfortable in dealing with this manger, we automatically felt very serious about our commitment to him. So, accountability was naturally enforced. We were clear that accountability meant either keeping the agreement or renegotiating the agreement well in advance. Personality was the only thing that used to hold us off from using this technique with other managers but with him we were only welcome to use it. We did renegotiate the agreement mostly in a positive way to tell him that we are done ahead of the schedule or found a cheaper alternative to a problem.

Bottom line is when you ask people questions which make them accountable, it is very easy to feel defensive and intimidated. Do not let that happen. Do not ask direct questions. Ask many innocuous questions which will not intimidate people but allow you to deduce the same information if you could connect dots from different questions. Basically be a nice guy first then you don't have to be a tough guy.

Some people say managers who are so friendly come across as weaklings and people especially ones working for them take advantage of them. As long as you have enough stuff to be respected and credible, people can not and will not take advantage of you just because you are nice guy. If you do not have the stuff to evoke respect from your people, they will take advantage of you despite your forceful personality. One of my most respected mentor is a high level executive in public company. He is responsible for 100+ million $ P&L. You can imagine how nice guy he is if I tell you, it did not take more than 24 hours to get a response personal e-mail I sent to him to just keep in touch.

Successful people always remember - "it is nice to be important. But, it more important to be nice." "If you want to gather honey, you certainly do not kick the bee hive." "You can attract more flies with a drop of honey than with a bucket of vinegar."


Ads by AdGenta.com

Ads by AdGenta.com

Powered by Qumana

No comments: