Move Beyond Just Managing Into the Fertile Turf of Mentorship

Business leaders can empower employees to be entrepreneurial, test out new ideas and spread a culture of innovation.

learn more about Brant Cooper

By Brant Cooper

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Part of the "innovator's dilemma" is that business processes, employee skills and leadership responsibilities are different when innovating on a breakthrough level than when engaging in incremental change.

In the change is incremental, the workplace is optimized for executing in known markets.

The breakthrough environment, however, must be optimized for learning in new or turned-upside-down markets.

Enterprise leaders know how to manage. They do it quite well, which is partly how the business became successful. They generally don't, however, know how to mentor.

But good mentoring is a key component of helping internal startup teams navigate the uncertainty of innovation.

The mindsets of managing and mentoring are fundamentally different. The core role of a manager is to control, direct and administer. In contrast, mentors offer ideas, evaluate evidence and hold teams accountable to their learning.

In today's fast-paced, digital world with technological transformation, global competition and startups looking to cut bigger businesses down at the knees, a new workplace mindset should be unleashed to empower employees to always be creating value for customers.

With that in mind, here are three key steps for leaders so they can move beyond the managerial mindset and into that of mentors:

Related: Create a Corporate Mentoring Program and You May Reap the Benefits

1. Inspire.

Leaders typically earn their roles by being successful managers. A key trait of successful leaders is that they are often very analytical people. They are used to breaking down complex issues, coming at problems from different angles and rallying resources around well-planned solutions. This is of great benefit for risky endeavors when problems and solutions are generally well understood. There's often a historical context.

When facing uncertainty, however, these traits can be a hindrance: The greatest leader executing a careful plan is doomed to failure when facing the great unknown. It's better then for mentors to admit what's not known. What's needed is an atmosphere of learning to reduce uncertainty.

You must break from the typical large corporation approach and encourages employees to experiment with bold new ideas instead of narrowing their scope of thoughts to safe and incremental solutions. Failure is an option within the context of discovery.

Related: 3 Hacks for Making the Most Out of a Mentoring Relationship

2. Empower.

The role of a mentor is not to criticize the idea or business model. Rather, a mentor should teach others how to test and validate (or invalidate) the team's assumptions. In this role, comments such as "that's not a great idea" or "that will never work" don't have a place.

While the mentor might turn out to be right, that's not because he or she knows something will be so. What's "known" happens in the marketplace, not between the mentor's ears.

A commonly held view among leaders is that it's their responsibility to prevent employees from wasting their time on "bad ideas." This mindset blinds managers from seeing the insights of team members.

Mentors can ask questions that lead to insight. Poking holes in new ideas is easy but not productive. Focus instead on teaching employee the skills they need so that they can learn whether an idea is good or not. That's the way to empower them to create new value on their own.

Mentors should help staffers persevere -- to try to break down the walls that separate breakthroughs from incremental ideas. They should also "have the backs" of the innovators, helping them navigate organizational obstacles.

3. Pass it on.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a mentor is the opportunity to cultivate new skills. Developing career paths has always been a part of quality mentoring. When employees are inspired and empowered to pursue innovation, this brings about a whole set of new skills that they and the organization can benefit from.

Teach employees to be creative and entrepreneurial. Encourage them to be self-starters, leaders and mentors to spark a holistic change in your organization.

Thinking in a new way and encouraging members of your team to do the same isn't something that happens overnight. It must be actively fostered and encouraged little by little. Mentoring should become a part of your normal routine.

Mentors should actively teach employees how to be mentees. Teach staffers to provide status updates. Instruct them how to encourage other team members. Encourage them to use experiments versus "passionate" discussions to overcome logjams. Teach people to gently push back and how to ask tough questions even of leaders.

Get started.

At the end of a meeting with employees, have each person come up with an experiment he or she would like to run to reduce some uncertainty. You can start small. You might decide on the "problem statements" people will solve for.

These experiments could be with products, internal processes or departmental issues. On a weekly basis, have employees report back on milestones achieved, what was learned. Have them set next week's milestones and figure out the obstacles blocking their achievement.

Very quickly you will see progress and start thinking of more entrenched issues to tackle. New leaders will emerge and you will get a good idea who the "entrepreneurial" employees are.

Adopting a mentor mentality can have a profound impact on a business. But change doesn't happen overnight. It takes time for large organizations to learn this approach and put it into action.

As you watch the process grow and take hold of more people within your organization, you'll find it well worth the effort. You will learn who your entrepreneurial employees are, and significant progress will be made on real business issues.

Ultimately you might find that employees work toward achieving business results across departments versus merely fulfilling their job descriptions. And finally new leaders will emerge to spread and maintain the new continuous innovation culture.

Related: Qualities Your Next Mentor Should Have

Brant Cooper

Co-Founder of Moves the Needle Group, Author

Brant Cooper is the co-founder of Moves the Needle Group in San Diego, Calif. He is the author of The Lean Entrepreneur and The Entrepreneur’s Guide to the Lean Brand

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