Category Archives: Mentoring

The End of the Mentoring Experiment

Back in April 2011 Steve Jones and I launched The Mentoring Experiment. We had some ideas and some goals, but truly it was an experiment to see what we might do to drive more mentoring and mentoring relationships. We had some success at the experiments we tried, but in the end we found that it is just hard to do – mentoring relationships are absolutely about chemistry and that’s just hard to find, and our very unsophisticated matching didn’t come close to that. What we did find was that for many (even most) people a sounding board/coach/very temporary mentor can help them figure out a challenging issue quickly (a few hours of talking). Career direction, career changes, salary, we saw a lot of common themes and I think our mentors did pretty well at helping the people we matched them with.

It was a hard project because we didn’t have a good way to show results or velocity and that matters, especially when you’re the experimenter and trying to measure success and stay engaged. There’s something powerful about seeing SQLSaturday #318 – it feels like success/velocity. It’s not the same to talk about mentoring matchup #318. It’s even harder because Steve and I are both fairly intense about privacy matters and mentoring falls into that zone – we couldn’t (and wouldn’t) just list everyone who wanted a mentor or who was paired up with a mentor. We tried to figure out a way to inject mentoring into the culture more. I’ve said for a while that the one thing I’d go back and change about SQLSaturday would be to have more focus on networking, and I’d add mentoring to that, but it’s really hard to go back and change a formula, especially when it works. Mentoring is several steps harder than networking, and networking isn’t easy. We just couldn’t find a way that didn’t feel forced and didn’t have the potential to create more problems than it fixed. Think about trying to drive mentoring in a chapter meeting with 10-20 people. It’s just hard.

It’s also suffered from lack of attention over the past six months. Steve and I both have other things going on and as we prioritized, this kept getting pushed down. We wanted to continue, but clearly we were struggling, and we decided it was time to wrap this up rather than let it linger, and maybe we should have done it sooner in hindsight. Not all experiments lead to big victories. This one didn’t. At least for us, but maybe it did change the conversation some and we raised the profile of the topic. We’re grateful to our friends that answered our call for mentors and to those who applied to be mentees, taking a chance on us and an idea, and hopefully they all learned something from the experience.

It isn’t the end of our interest in mentoring. We’ll still talk about it, we’re both still interesting in helping people where we can as we’ve always done – quietly, behind the scenes, in a pay-it-forward kind of way. We’d be thrilled to see someone take up the cause, in whatever shape that might take. If you can find a way to build on what we’ve done, or use it for inspiration, or do it entirely differently and make it work better – do it! There’s a lot to be said for trying to do some good in the world.

Need Recommendations on Being a Better Listener

This past weekend I’ve been reading The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Shafir, part of my ongoing efforts to be better at many things and also part of research for an upcoming project. The book was a good starting point for me, with some ideas on the different types of listening and how mindfulness and listening are related.

I’d like to think I’m a reasonably ok listener (I scored 17 on the quiz in the book, in the ok to good range), but I’m also prone to three listening failures (probably more, but three is a start!):

  • Talking too much
  • Getting distracted (especially in slow moving meetings)
  • Offering advice

All of those are hard. Not all conversations should be evenly balanced, sometimes you’re sharing knowledge or ideas, and sometimes it’s just enthusiasm for a topic that carries me.  I need to remember to think about what the balance should be and adjust accordingly. Not being distracted – extra hard – the book mentions that we think faster than people talk, so in that mental idle time we tend to wander. Taking notes/minutes for my own use has been the best helper for me in group settings and I need to make sure I do that consistently. Offering advice, where to start? I think I want to make sure I’m sticking to coaching or ‘look out for that pothole’ messages. I’ve learned to avoid advice on emotional issues, that is usually just listening time.

I’m looking for other resources on good listening in a business context. Web, book, video, if you’ve found something that helped you be a better listener I hope you’ll post a comment (or contact me via email/LinkedIn/Twitter) and if you have time, also a bit about how you came to find that resource and how much difference is made in improving your listening skills.

Books On The Desk

I read quite a bit and it’s rare that I don’t have a book or magazine with me in case I’m stuck waiting on some meeting to start. Most days at lunch I read for a few minutes too, just another way to get to my weekly goal of professional development. It’s typically technology, management, leadership type books, though occasionally it’s further afield – recently I was reading about writing grants for example.

I tend to throw whatever I’m reading on my desk. It reminds me to stay at it (not all these books are page turners after all), but I’ve also found that it is a useful way of starting conversations. It’s also interesting to see people ask (or you see them thinking) “why would you read that?”.

I wish I saw other people do this more. It feels like a lot of people are successful in the short term with no learning, or just in time learning. It’s a practical (or cynical) strategy, but it’s short sighted, there is no investment in “later”. Then again, maybe I just don’t seem them making that investment.

Give the Gift of Feedback

I bet if you think about it there are lots of times when people ask what you think about a problem. We in IT are geared for that, we love to solve problems, and getting a new problem sparks the same kind of salivation that your dog does when he sees a new bone land in front of him.

But give us a plan to solve a problem, especially one that isn’t ours to implement, and – I know I’m generalizing here – we tend to gloss over it. Some other smart person did the research and figured out the decisions, if we don’t spot the proverbial ‘something stupid’ in about 15 seconds we’re done – looks ok to me. This is true for peers and I think is especially true in managers. If you’ve built trust and established competency most managers will do the quick look and move on.

Why? I can think of a few reasons:

  • It takes time
  • We don’t want to rehash details
  • We think any changes we might suggest would be style and not substance
  • We’ve offered feedback before and had it declined (or just think it will be ignored)
  • Nothing in it for me
  • We don’t know enough about the topic to provide good feedback
  • We don’t want to get blamed if we miss something or offer a suggestion that goes bad
  • We trust you to come  up with a good solution

Some of those are cynical, some are practical, and it’s often a combination – I’m busy, I trust you, I don’t know the problem.

I like asking for feedback. I’ve rarely had an idea that wasn’t made better by asking for suggestions/review, but I know that getting that feedback isn’t easy. That’s made me a whole lot more willing to offer feedback on just about anything if asked. Often it’s enough to quiz them on the plan/problem – why this and not that? What alternatives did you rule out and why?

What I’m giving them is my time and my interest. Maybe it’s just questions, maybe it’s suggestions,I put some effort into helping them succeed. It’s a nice feeling when you can help them identify a gap or make a fix work even better. It’s also a nice feeling when you don’t find anything – they walk away a lot more confident that they didn’t forget some big item. I’m not vested in my suggestions,it’s not about me, it’s about them.

I’ll do that when asked, and I’ll do it if I see any work email that nags at me to make sure there isn’t a gap. The latter takes some judgment, what I offer as helpful feedback can easily be perceived as criticism, ax grinding, or worse. Find the middle ground, don’t opt for the safety of never commenting for fear of it being taken the wrong way.

There is one other scenario that is much, much harder, and that is when it’s feedback to a person (usually about that person or their performance). It’s hard to offer unsolicited feedback, hard to present it well, and all too easy for it to wrong in spectacular fashion. I’ve thought about this a lot as a mentor and as I read/think about mentoring. Often a few sentences from the right person can change the world for someone, whether it’s identifying a problem or bad behavior, or telling them that you believe in them.

What makes it ok for you to say those few sentences? We’re back to judgment and more wisdom than I have most days. The first few times I tried this it went pretty good, but I agonized about it afterward, did I say too much, was it right for me to say it? I can’t say I have an exact formula, but I do have some internal rule set about who and when and why I’ll engage like this. It’s far from automatic, and it’s a lot less often than other kinds of feedback.

One other note I want to drop in – once people know you will offer feedback and not get upset if it’s not taken, they’ll want more feedback from you. It’s a bit of trust that can be a win for both parties.

There’s a lot to this, thinking I didn’t cover it all here but made a good start. And yes, if you want to offer feedback on this I’ll take it gladly!

PASS Election Results Posted

Congratulations to Wendy Pastrick, James Rowland-Jones, and Sri Sridharan on winning a two year term on the PASS Board of Directors. It was an amazingly close race, read the full results here.  The remaining two candidates, Allen Kinsel and Kendal Van Dyke, will be leaving the Board at the end of this year. I hope those of you reading this will take time to drop them a note thanking them for their efforts, they have made a difference.

I also want to send kudos to the PASS Board and PASS HQ for running an election that appeared to run smoothly and fairly. Good elections are the foundation of everything else!

Call for Mentors for The Mentoring Experiment

We’re about to start our second experiment over at The Mentoring Experiment and we need mentors. Last time we picked a handful of people as mentors so that we could control that portion of the experiment. This time we’re just asking people that are interested to apply to be a mentor.

You might notice we’re not putting anything on the survey or the post about qualifications or mentoring experience. That’s by design. In part we don’t know what makes for a qualified mentor, and in part we want to see the range of skills/experience we get if we don’t set any boundaries. If you think you can be a good mentor, then apply!

Take The Survey from the SQL Server Connection Team

Saw this today, a survey posted to the SQL Protocols blog by Principal Group Program Manager Raghu Ram. I took it (wouldn’t recommend it without trying it!) took about 2 minutes, and the most interesting question is at the end, prioritizing work, with options including a focus on TDS compression, supporting new authentication types, multi-core optimizations, and more. Good chance to share your thoughts on what is important for the next iteration of SQL Server.