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Mentoring: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned

“Mentoring: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned”

When counseling senior managers, savvy CEOs get something back by learning a thing or two themselves.

When counseling senior managers, savvy CEOs get something back by learning a thing or two themselves.

Mentoring senior managers is a two-way street; CEOs can also learn something in the process. Three entrepreneurs discuss the insights and lessons they have gleaned from coaching others.

Tough love

Unlike the CEOs of competing landscaping firms, George Kinsella doesn’t know much about plants. “Not having horticulture as a background is my weakness, but I know business,” says Kinsella, CEO of Kinsella Landscape Inc., a $3.5 million company in Blue Island, Ill.

Kinsella’s challenge: Teaching his green-thumbed staff to think managerially. To do that, he often lets managers learn for themselves by allowing them to make mistakes. “It’s hard to sit back and watch something unfold, but sometimes if I were to step in, it wouldn’t teach them anything,” says Kinsella.

Case in point: Kinsella has been mentoring one of his three senior managers, the vice president of finance, to be more diplomatic when communicating with the rank and file. A few weeks ago, this vice president was coordinating a request from the company’s insurance carrier — drug testing of a specific employee. The employee found out and asked the vice president why the insurance company chose him to be the test-taker.

“The vice president’s response was, ‘Why? What do you have to hide?’ ” recalls Kinsella, who was in the room at the time. “As the vice president was saying that, he took one look at me and knew that he had screwed up. He had sided with an outside insurance company instead of his own employee. But if I’d have stepped in, he wouldn’t have learned the lesson to think hard before opening his mouth.”

While coaching this vice president on how to be a more effective communicator, Kinsella has learned to step back and let employees fulfill their roles.

Micro vs. macro

Last year Trish Bear, CEO of I-ology Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., managed a staff of 10. Then the Internet marketing firm suddenly grew 100%. “It was a big transition that taught me I needed to let go of some control,” says Bear, who hired a vice president of client services. Now she’s coaching him on how to coach the staff.

To do that, Bear uses role-playing, a technique she learned from her personal coach. She and the vice president paint scenarios and discuss possible outcomes for decisions. “I don’t give answers,” she says, “but ask probing questions and ‘Why?’ “

In this mentoring process, the vice president has helped Bear to better understand the financial repercussions of decisions, and she has taught him how to adhere to I-ology’s core values. “He helps me work through problems more logically,” says Bear. “He shows the margins and the financial impacts; I help him explore the intangibles.”

Those “intangibles” refer to how well decisions hold up against I-ology’s mantra of doing the right thing for the client — all the time. Even if something may be less profitable in the short term, but increases the chances of a long-term client relationship, Bear will often forgo the immediate financial gain.

The vice president has also given Bear new insights about her staff. Because he works more closely with employees than she ever had time to, Bear better understands each employee’s strengths and weaknesses and is more aware of the training required to help them develop — and the budget needed to make that happen.

“This has overall increased our efficiency when dealing with clients, and that’s helped our bottom line,” says Bear. “He’s working on a more micro level, and that allows me to work on the macro.”

Communication channels

The third generation to lead Joseph A. Lister Inc., Russ von Frank inherited a stifling hierarchy at the Hampstead, N.Y.-based insurance agency. His challenge was to get senior managers — and other employees — to think more independently. This dawned on him when he tried to take a vacation. “I went away for a weekend, and before I even got to the hotel, there were 10 voice mails,” says von Frank, who became president in 1987.

Until two years ago, employees at the 63- year-old company marched to a corporate culture established in the ’30s, von Frank explains: “Lister was always run as a one-man operation; every decision had to come through the president. No one could think for themselves, and that’s the way [the previous presidents] liked it.”

Now von Frank has cracked that rigid structure. Today his two senior managers share a wealth of information with him, including client updates, employee frustrations and ideas to improve operations. To encourage this, von Frank meets with them to review big-picture issues, and he encourages other staff members to work directly with their managers on the day-to-day issues.

In the process, his senior managers have taught von Frank not to make assumptions and to ask more questions. “I assumed everybody knew what to do, but then I realized they were frustrated, not knowing what direction to go,” he explains. “Mentoring the senior managers has taught me more about every employee and about the importance of talking to them on a regular basis.”

Simple conversations pay off: “I’m no longer the only person people report to,” von Frank says. “It’s increased the time I have to see customers, and I am no longer in crisis management. I’m now proactively working on the business.”

Writer: Rosemarie Buchanan