Mentoring in Consulting

    Consulting and professional services firms thrive by hiring top level high performers.  But it Mentoringdoesn’t stop there.  Once a consultant becomes part of a high powered team, he or she needs to continue to develop and learn.  There are few better ways to do that than to work with a mentor within the firm to increase their knowledge and productivity.

    1. Why is mentoring so important in consulting and professional services?
      1. For one thing, it’s very important when you’re new to a firm, to have someone to help you with the internal workings.  Getting the lay of the land and knowing who to go to for different information.
      2. Every company does things a little differently in their methodology or approach to solving problems.  Anyone that’s new, no matter what their experience level is, needs someone to help them come up to speed quickly in an industry as fast-paced as consulting.
      3. Also, as you mentioned, top consulting firms hire top people. But once a top performer makes it in to a top consulting firm, they can’t let their skills go stale.
      4. It’s important to work with people with complementary skills to provide a different insight.  This could be someone with more experience in your focused industry, or it could just be someone who has more experience in consulting or at that particular consulting firm.
    2. How does one go about finding a mentor
      1. In some firms, mentors are assigned.  In those cases it’s more of a buddy system for new employees.  During their first week, the firm formally says, “This is Bob and he’ll be your mentor”.
      2. I’m not a big fan of this because it’s sometimes forced on both parties.  You don’t know how much thought was put into it and you never know whether the two people will develop any chemistry between them.
      3. On the other hand, it is better than nothing. If you’re new at a firm and don’t know anyone, there’s at least someone to show you how to get office supplies and learn a little about their methodology.
      4. But my preference is for a mentoring relationship to just occur naturally.  Once someone is with a firm, they end up working with a number of different people.
      5. Once they start to get to know each other and develop some relationships with their co-workers, a new employee will start to develop that chemistry with one or two people and two things will hopefully occur.
      6. First, that relationship starts to gel.  I think a mentor should be someone you get along with.  It’s not a boss-employee type of relationship. I see it as a professional friendship.
      7. The second thing that should develop is recognition that the other person has some skill or knowledge or experience that the person is lacking. This is where a consultant needs to practice some humility.
      8. As consultants, there are many who feel it might be a weakness to admit a weakness.  But you just can’t know everything about everything.  So you have to be able to admit needing some help in some area and allowing a peer to help you out.
    3. Let’s talk about it evolving or happening naturally.  How do you see that happening?
      1. Well as I said, I think assigning mentors can be kind of forced and awkward.  My preference is to see it just take shape.
      2. This isn’t perfect either.  As I mentioned, it requires a consultant to admit they have an area they need to work on.
      3. Very few conslutants will claim that they’re perfect.  But it takes a lot of humility and self-confidence to openly admit to someone, ‘Hey, you know more about something than me and I’d like to learn more from you’.
      4. But it doesn’t have to be so formal.  You don’t have to go up to someone and say ‘I bestow upon you the title of My Mentor’.
      5. Even when you allow others to pick their own mentors, making it a formal announcement or title still makes it a bit forced.
      6. I think mentoring works best when it’s more of a process than a title.
      7. For instance, if I work with someone that has knowledge or a skill that I’d like to develop, I could just start developing a relationship with that person.
      8. We could take coffee breaks once in a while or go to lunch.  Maybe even stop for a drink after work.  Much like selling to a client, it’s about developing a relationship.
      9. I may never say to that person ‘Bob I want you to be my mentor’.  I could just start talking to him or her about work and about their knowledge.
      10. I’m essentially bending their ear and asking for advice.  We’re practicing the activity of mentoring without actually making it a formal announcement of the roles involved.
      11. There’s nothing sneaky or conniving about that. It’s not like I’m stealing valuable mentoring knowledge without this person knowing it.
      12. They’re mentoring me just by virtue of the fact that they’re answering my questions.
      13. Another nice thing about this approach is I’m not stuck with a single mentor.  When we have a formal mentoring program, it’s almost like monogamy is implied.
      14. If I have a mentor and then tell them I’m meeting with someone else for a mentoring session.  They might look at me with hurt feelings like ‘well I thought I was your mentor…’
      15. But when you don’t make it formal, you’re just getting advice from various co-workers, maybe in different areas.  Maybe I talk to Mary to learn more about sales, but I turn to Steve for advice on our methodology.
    4. What types of efforts should someone take if they want to be a mentor?
      1. Well again, I don’t think the formal announcement is the route to take.  If I see someone who I think needs to develop in an area that I’m strong in, it just doesn’t work to go up to them and say ‘You need a mentor and I’m the one you need’.
      2. It just comes off a little condescending.  You can’t just force help onto someone no matter how well intentioned it is.
      3. Like many things, it’s more in how you say it than what you say.  If you do see someone that you think needs help, you can do a little subtle nudging and let them make that decision.
      4. For instance, if I see a young consultant that needs some help in developing client relations, that’s something I feel I’m strong at and could provide some help.
      5. I could start out by strengthening our relationship.  Go to lunch with them a couple of times and just get to know them.  Learn their background and what their strengths are.
      6. Eventually we could start talking about work related things and start to get this person’s point of view.
      7. If that person sees me as someone they’d like advice from, they’ll eventually start asking me for advice.  You’re letting it happen somewhat naturally, you’re just putting yourself out there to facilitate it happening.
      8. This person may not take the bait.  And there are two probable reasons for that.  First, they may not realize they need help.  It could be arrogance or it could be ignorance.  But they just don’t seem interested in obtaining any wisdom from you.
      9. In this case you could offer them advice in the ‘for what it’s worth’ category.  You might say, ‘did you think about handling it this way?’ or ‘I had a similar situation like that and this is what I learned from it’.
      10. I’ve always thought that all advice is optional but unsolicited advice is more optional that any other.  So if you just throw it out there without forcing it down their throat, it gives them some food for thought.
      11. Now, if they totally reject your advice or ignore it, the possible reason may be that you don’t hve any credibility with them.  They may be completely wrong in their assessment, but if they aren’t interested in your advice, they aren’t going to listen to it.
      12. Maybe they have someone else they’re turning to and maybe you just don’t have that chemistry.  But it has to be a mutual desire for you to give advice and for them to receive advice.   Otherwise it will never work.
    5. How much more experienced should a mentor be in order to be effective?
      1. I’m a firm believer that anyone can mentor someone else.  Everyone has something to offer.  I’ve been new to a firm and turned to younger people who had been there longer to learn more about their specialized methodology.
      2. Most people like to give advice and take it more as a complement when someone asks them for advice.  So I don’t see it as a measurement that the mentor has to have X more years of experience than the mentee in order to effectively mentor them.
      3. It’s more a measure of this person knows more about something than I do and I’d like to learn from them.
    6. So can you envision someone with less experience mentoring someone with many years of experience?
      1. Absolutely.  Anyone can mentor someone else in something regardless of their experience or age.
      2. Let me give you an example.  I was born in the mid-60s, which puts me right at the tail end of the baby boomer generation.  So my generation was brought up with advanced technologies such as microwave ovens and color TV.
      3. I remember my parents talking about growing up with no TV.  They would sit around listening to their radio shows. That was unfathomable to me.
      4. As we became adults and turned middle-aged, we’ve seen the advent of what started out as the car phone and the introduction of the internet.  And as these technologies advanced to mobile phones to smart phones and web 2.0, we’ve seen them converge to the point that my 16-year old’s smart phone is more powerful than the first personal computer.
      5. So his generation, generation Y finds it just as unfathomable when they hear that I grew up without the internet or mobile phones.
      6. So as the technology changes – and it changes more rapidly all the time – these changes just come naturally for this generation.  I’ve worked in technology most of my career so I’m probably a little more ahead of the curve on technology than many of my contemporaries, but it still doesn’t come as naturally as the generation that has always had it around.
      7. So let’s say I work with one of these generation-Y people.  I may have a lot more experience in the business world and have a lot of knowledge that I can share with any of them that are willing to listen.  But they have insights to technology and current trends that I’m out of the loop on.
      8. Even if I make that extra effort to stay up to date on the technology trends, they still have a leg up on me with their intuitive nature with technology.
      9. What we’re describing here is a form of reverse mentoring where members of generation Y work with the baby boomer generation or workers older than them to work better and more efficiently with the latest technologies.
    7. In what other ways can a consultant become a mentor?
      1. We’ve focused our mentoring discussion to be about mentoring within the firm.  I think it’s important to have informal mentoring relationships with peers as well as co-workers that are both older and younger than you.
      2. But you can also work with client personnel.  When you work at a client, you’re an advisor.  That applies to more than just doing what’s in the statement of work that your team is delivering to the client as a whole.
      3. Part of consulting is developing relationships with the individuals at the client.
      4. You want to share your knowledge with them.  This certainly applies to the project you’re working on.  I work in IT consulting where we develop custom software for our clients.  I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure they know how to use that software and how to maintain it after we walk out their door.
      5. Beyond that, if I work with a client employee who is interested in learning more about something I feel I’m strong in, I’m always willing to help them out.
      6. That could be as simple as a question and answer session over lunch or working with them on a regular basis to help them develop a skill.
      7. I also think that if you have a deep skill that you should share that with the community.  That could be through being active in organizations.  I’m a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and that gives me opportunities to network and share leadership skills with others.
      8. I’m also a member of Toastmasters, which is a great organization for helping people to become better public speakers.  I go there to learn from others but I also share my knowledge with others.
      9. There are also organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and other inner city programs that a consultant can get involved with to teach leadership, management or even technology skills to less fortunate people to help them make big changes in their lives.
      10. So there are opportunities for mentoring all over the place.  Everyone has a skill in something that someone else would like to learn more about.  You just have to figure out what that skill or knowledge is and find out where you can share it.
    8. Any final thoughts on mentoring in consulting?
      1. We all know the saying that you can’t help someone who won’t help themselves.  We talked a little about trying to mentor someone who just isn’t interested.
      2. You have to let it happen naturally.  There are things you can do to facilitate it like offering to help or even introducing two people who you think can help each other.
      3. But they have to have that chemistry.  They have to have a mutual respect for each other to really make mentoring work.
      4. I also want to stress a point we made that mentoring should be more of a process than set of roles or a relationship.  And by that I mean that it should be a process of asking others for advice and sharing your knowledge with others.
      5. It shouldn’t be so much of a one-to-one thing as a network of many-to-many.  I can offer assistance to five or ten different people at different times and five or ten other people can help me.  And sometimes those groups overlap.
      6. Everyone should be able to help everyone else.

    Next week’s topic: Protecting the Firm

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    Mentoring 101

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