Mentoring, as Team Leader

I was asked about how I would mentor people in the context of being the team leader. Tricky situation, that.

On the one hand mentoring people without their request is an instance of what Jerry Weinberg calls “inflicting help.” At best, it’s ineffective. Usually it’s worse.

On the other hand, an organization has a reasonable expectation that the people working there will improve over time. Who better to help a team do that than the team leader?

Well, you can’t make people learn, but you can expect them to do so. And if you keep them informed of your expectations, they are quite likely to live up to them–at least, if you have a good relationship with them.

The next step is to create an environment that fosters learning. To me, that means that it fosters communication and allows people to make mistakes without recrimination.

Unfortunately, in many places where I’ve worked, the developers are separated into offices or cubicles and given specific tasks to do. They do these tasks on their own, struggling through the difficulties the best they can. As it was in school, it’s considered “cheating” to get help from someone else. On top of this, those working on the same project are called a “team.”

It gets worse, though. I once worked for a company that took great pride in the excellence of its developers. They had glowing statements touting the sense of teamwork and helpfulness of the developers. Well, that may have been true at one time, but I was struck by the dissimilarity between what the company said and how it acted. I recall a relatively new employee asking on a company mailing list a rather basic question about a technology he didn’t know well. I never saw a public reply to his question, but I did overhear people gossiping in the hallways that “he should have known that.”

So, what would I do? I would start with putting the team in a common room to work together. It’s amazing how much you learn from overhearing people working on the same project. Sometimes you hear something that calls your assumptions into question. Sometimes you hear questions to which you know the answer. Sharing knowledge among the team members is easy if they don’t have to go out of their way to do so. And it’s surprising what a short distance it takes to discourage asking a question.

Sharing information freely like this builds trust, also. That trust makes people more comfortable with asking questions about things they don’t know. Sure, it would be wonderful if all the team members already knew everything they needed, but that rarely happens. Not asking, because you don’t feel safe in admitting your ignorance, can be fatal to a project.

Working closely together in a shared environment is often enough to build a strong sense of teamwork. I think that this teamwork can be made even more likely, or stronger, by examining it as a group. Improvement in your practices comes from being mindful of your work–noticing what works and how well. Retrospectives make teams more aware of their teamwork, and their ownership of the success of the team.

Getting back to the original question, does this constitute mentoring? Perhaps not quite. Getting the team to the point where they’re working closely together and examining, together, how they’re working is the enabling practice. In most cases the team will mentor themselves given this starting point. Certainly they are now well prepared to take a simple suggestion and run with it.

What do you think? How would you approach mentoring from the position of being a team leader?

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Comments (1) to “Mentoring, as Team Leader”

  1. I find a great way to help build a feeling of trust is to openly admit to the things you don’t know or don’t know well. A team leader that feels secure enough in their abilities could start doing this straight away.

    There are also ways to help people learn that aren’t “inflicting help” – but it can be a fine line.

    Something that’s worked well for me is to suggest to all members of the team that they take an hour or so out of their week to learn about something and, optionally, present it briefly to the rest. Even if no-one presents anything you still send the message that it’s a good thing to learn and that they’re allowed to take the time to do so.

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