What is This Thing Called Mentoring

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 By Paul Bosakowski, PMP

One of the most challenging things for any individual to do is to change jobs. It doesn’t matter whether the job is manual, clerical or professional; in which industry the job resides; or even how old you are when you change jobs. It could be your first job. It could even be a job change within your own organization—perhaps in a different geographical location.

Regardless of the type of change, it takes you a good three to six months to become known (and to establish trust in both directions); to find out “how work really gets done here”; who you can rely on; where you go to get answers to questions, etc. If your new job is with an international company in a new location it probably takes longer—because you are also adjusting to a new culture.

But how do you become productive when subjected to such a magnitude of change? Where do you go to get credible information: to build a network; to get things done; to accumulate knowledge?

If we can accept the hypothesis that a PM is interchangeable—whether he/she can function in any industry, if he/she understands the concepts of PM—then there are three ways to accumulate knowledge in any new job: personal skill building; knowledge transfer; and an infusion of selected wisdom.

Personal skill building? Isn’t that the purpose of training? Of course. Formal training courses can introduce and sharpen basic PM skills like scope and risk management, communication skills and the other PM knowledge areas. On-the-job training—OJT—sharpens skills and augments training even more. Training has its place in the accumulation of knowledge, but it has some limits. For example, training courses do not address these issues:

  • How does a PM learn how to function in another office within the company? Or in another culture when a foreign assignment beckons?
  • Where does an inexperienced new PM pick up the “lessons learned” that are invaluable in the day-to-day execution of a project in a particular company?
  • What are the “hot buttons” for management in a specific location?

Do training programs exist for those types of learnings? Probably not…those learnings belong to two other learning processes: knowledge transfer and selected wisdom infusion.

How should knowledge be transferred? Enter mentoring. Synonyms for “mentor” include: adviser; counselor, guide and tutor/teacher. Each implies a transfer of knowledge. Which begs the question: How? A fellow worker shows you the ropes; introduces you to others; vouches for you; helps you navigate the corporate/local political landmines; and generally eases the transition for you. After some time, you MIGHT be able to function more effectively alone because someone helped you through the transition.

The best way for a PM to start the knowledge transfer part of the mentoring process is to seek out an individual who appears to have mastered “the system” in a specific location. Doing so requires initiative on the part of the individual seeking knowledge: finding a credible mentor; setting up a process to transfer the knowledge; establishing a priority for the transfer; meeting periodically to assess progress; and setting up a way to keep in contact for those emergency situations that seem to arise without warning.  Not an easy task for a person to implement on HIS/HER own.

For today’s PMP, professional responsibility requires us to be proactive by contributing to the project management knowledge base. What better way to fulfill this responsibility exists than to mentor a new PM or someone new to your company?

So much for what knowledge transfer through mentoring is and its justification—PMPs ought to do that anyway: share knowledge. What about the third knowledge accumulation component: selected wisdom?  Can wisdom be transferred?

If we separate personal wisdom—good judgment—from business wisdom—acumen—then an additional persuasive case can be made for mentoring as defined above.

What distinguishes knowledge transfer from selected wisdom infusion? So far, the mentoring steps outlined in this essay have addressed how to function in a new environment and not the issues that differentiate outstanding performance from routine. One way to distinguish knowledge from wisdom is that knowledge can be captured in policy and procedures, and selected wisdom cannot.

 Selected wisdom transfusion, regardless of industry, includes:

  • What new information does a PM need to be able to lead a project in a different industry? (Often, the difference is jargon and a thorough technology briefing.)
  • How does one become proficient at reviewing an estimate, leading a planning meeting or knowing the symptoms of a project in trouble? (Planning skills differ widely among IT, oil and gas, and nuclear power industries, for example.)
  • How does a PM learn to ask good questions and how to recognize good answers to those questions?
  • How does a PM really juggle multiple projects with satisfactory results?
  • What distinguishes data from information and why does it matter to know the difference?
  • And this list could go on…

 It is in this third learning component, selected wisdom, that mentoring produces its greatest value. It is in the minds and memories of today’s practicing PMs that the PM legacy exists for all industries.

 And the challenge is to pass it on.

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