Many years ago, I had my first experience with leadership. As a newcomer, I was put in charge of a handful of people. Having no experience at the job and having grown up as an avid viewer of war movies, I thought being in charge meant being like Sergeant Slaughter. This meant that I expected people to do what I told them to do, to push to get jobs done quickly and yell when things didn’t go right. Needless to say, the results met nobody’s expectations.
Fortunately, I wasn’t allowed to get too far with this approach because the culture of my organization wouldn’t allow that to happen. My early mentors were people such as Jim Carlin. He had 16 years in the organization, chain-smoked, played hard when off duty, had tattoos up and down his arms, was extremely quick-witted and was an exceptionally knowledgeable mechanical technician. His dedication and attitude instantly gained the respect of people around him.
Each time I made significant errors in technique or judgment, it seemed Jim had expected it, and knew how to improve my performance. Sometimes he let me “stand on into shoal water,” to encounter a little difficulty for me to understand firsthand why that approach would not work. Other times he hovered nearby to make course corrections as things developed. His method was dictated by my capabilities and readiness for greater responsibilities.
Jim — and thousands of others like him — are mentors. He viewed mentoring as his responsibility. He mentored those around him, not just those under him. He’d mentor junior management people on their first assignment, even though they outranked him. The smart junior manager always took the counsel of experienced persons. Mentors act like a benevolent big brother; looking out for you, helping you to grow professionally.
Five nuggets of wisdom Jim Carlin ingrained in me are based on human nature, and were reinforced by what the organizational culture allowed.
Praise in public; correct in private: When someone does something good, let everyone know who did what. When people do something poorly, correct them privately.
Keep others from disrupting your team: Build a sheltering umbrella over your team. They need only one voice giving them direction.
Assume responsibility for failure: If the team or a team member fails, it’s because the leader didn’t put them in a position to do better. The supervisor must put the team in a position to be as successful as possible, given the available resources and expectations.
Never take team trust for granted: Things you ask of them must be for the good of the organization; never just for the good of the supervisor (such as trying to look good for a bonus or promotion by overworking your team).
Always deal with performance problems: When you look the other way, you aren’t just letting someone slide; you’re disrespecting the other team members. Only they determine whether you’re respected as a leader.
You might be thinking, “Mentoring worked well in your circumstances, Tom, but it won’t work in my world.” In response, I say two things. First, the logo above the door where you work has no effect on human nature. Second, an organization’s culture is a function of what its members allow to occur.
If you’re a manager or supervisor, dedicate time to exercising leadership skills and mentoring those around you. Yes, I know that there’s a tendency to be concerned about being passed over for promotion by someone who you bring along. I’m one of those who choose to view mentoring and leadership skills as a competitive advantage, something that’s not easily duplicated. Sustained leadership excellence will open many more doors than underperforming to protect your position. Go, lead the way.
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and (321) 773-3356.