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Greenville Business Magazine

In Uncertain Times, Mentoring Is the Silver Bullet Solution Leaders Need

Apr 11, 2022 04:07PM ● By Bert Thornton

Organizations in all industries have been hit hard over the last two years. The pandemic and its ripple effects have left leaders desperately wondering, What’s going to happen next? And how do I manage it? Unless you have a crystal ball, there’s no way to accurately answer the first question, but I have a suggestion to help you tackle the second: mentoring.

Over the course of my 40-plus-year Waffle House career, I’ve worn many hats, but through it all, my overarching passion has been mentoring. 

I’ve mentored hundreds of rising high achievers from all industries, and when I became president and COO, one of my top priorities was creating an organization-wide mentoring program to maximize the development of rising high achievers. Five years later, our middle and senior leadership bench had quadrupled.

So yes, I know from experience that mentoring can be the long-term solution to weathering storms like those we’ve experienced recently. Regardless of your industry, mentoring attracts and helps retain talent, boosts employee satisfaction, drives individual and organizational performance, builds a deep bench of adaptable and engaged employees, and helps new hires hit the ground running.

Plus, mentors themselves usually experience a revitalization of their engagement, self-development, and goals.

You don’t need a big budget to get a great ROI from mentoring — but you do need the right attitude and skill set to initiate, navigate, and sustain productive mentoring relationships. Here are eight things for aspiring mentors to keep in mind:  

Be prepared to invest time and energy. You can give a few pieces of quick advice to a new hire over a cup of coffee, but that’s having a casual chat, not mentoring. Many mentor-mentee pairs meet for one hour, once a month (sometimes more often!). My own mentoring relationships have tended to last for at least a year, and some have spanned decades.

Always keep your eyes peeled for potential mentees. Don’t wait for them to come to you! Once, while visiting a Waffle House location as a senior leader, I pitched in during the busy supper shift and began talking with the restaurant’s brand-new manager.

At one point, this young man asked me, “Bert, how do I get promoted?” As we both continued to work behind the counter and bus tables, I told him to make himself the “obvious choice” and explained what that entailed. That conversation turned out to be the first of many we had over the years — and today, my mentee is an operational executive VP at Waffle House.

Get to know your mentee before sharing your wisdom and advice. Your first order of business should be getting to know your mentee as well as possible. You’ll need to learn as much as possible about their personality, background, education, experience, goals, strengths and weaknesses, etc.

This information will help you determine 1) that the two of you are a good fit, 2) that you understand your mentee’s motivation, and 3) that you are equipped to offer appropriate guidance and advice.

Remember to develop the whole person, not just the employee. There’s much more to building a successful career (and life!) than attaining technical skills and industry knowledge.

That’s why I evaluate each mentee on what I call the “Eight Great Social Tells”: attitude, energy, appearance, command of the language, engagement, conversational bearing, demeanor, and body language. Mentees will need a solid foundation in each of these areas to be successful, and it may be that you’ll need to focus on one or more of these characteristics before (or in concert with) giving business advice. 

For instance, in getting to know one of my favorite mentees, I quickly determined that her soft-spoken nature could potentially keep others from realizing how engaged and brilliant she was. One of my main goals in mentoring her was helping her learn to confidently use her voice to share her ideas, achievements, and convictions. Today she is a very successful executive, so it must have worked!

Good mentors don’t take it “one day at a time.” Instead, they purposefully create a plan for developing their mentees over time. Start where you see the biggest need and expand from there. What does your mentee need to learn now, in the next month, and in the next year? I call this the “Learn List.” It has been used to great effect in developing rising leaders at Waffle House. 

Make sure you are always learning. You may be speaking with the voice of experience, but you don’t know it all—and the external environment is always evolving. In order to provide the best, most up-to-date information to your mentee, you will need to see your own education and personal development as an ongoing project. Strive to consistently consume an impactful array of books, articles, websites, podcasts, etc. 

Realize that mentoring goes both ways. The initial assumption about mentoring is that mentors give, and mentees receive — but the opposite is also true. Be open to learning what your mentee can teach. For instance, getting to know a member of a younger generation might prompt you to think differently about what a diverse, inclusive workplace looks like.

Your mentee might instruct you on how to make the most of your office’s shared calendar and productivity apps. Or in answering their questions, you might come to look at your own accomplishments and viewpoints from a different angle.

Consider scaling mentoring throughout your organization. Throughout my mentoring journey, I have often reminded myself of an important truth: No matter how talented they may be, no one drifts into greatness. No one is born with (or even graduates from college with) the skills that are needed to lead and work in today’s business environment. 

That’s why a well-planned, well-executed mentoring program will always be one of the best tools available to help businesses grow, thrive, and innovate, whether external circumstances are favorable or turbulent. If the majority of your experienced leaders aren’t actively mentoring rising high achievers, you are underutilizing one of your organization’s most valuable resources. There’s no substitute for having a system that delivers consistent, quality development to all new hires. 

I believe that we “old gorillas” — those of us who have taken on scars and grown gray while fighting our way through the jungles of business and life — have a responsibility to pass on what we’ve learned to the new generation of emerging leaders. Under our direction, they can grow successful and strong while avoiding many of the pitfalls that slowed us down and held us back.

They’ll also be equipped with the support, skills, and best practices they need to meet the challenges of the next few years—and beyond—with resilience and confidence.  

Bert Thornton is the former president and COO of Waffle House. He is co-author, along with Dr. Sherry Hartnett, of the new book “High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives.”.