Accountability, Mentors, Productivity

I find myself thinking often about the relationships between accountability, mentors, coaches and productivity. My thoughts are half-formed, still percolating. I am hoping that writing them down will give them some structure.

I have frequently admitted my admiration for Ben Casnocha in the past. He has had two recent posts related to my thoughts on accountability, mentors and productivity: Six Habits of Highly Effective Mentees and Should you take notes in a one-on-one meeting? In my briefcase I have about 10 pounds (I wish I were exaggerating) of meeting notes and materials to transcribe into my Google Notebook. Obviously I agree 100% with his idea of taking notes at every meeting. Ben is a bit more savvy than I realizing that “Also, if you are taking notes but your partner is not, a subtle power dynamic can emerge (ie, the person taking notes is less than the person not taking notes).” I may be twice Ben’s age but my response to this is “whatever.” It’s not about the power for me but the knowledge. I’ll take that any day over some posturing.

It is only recently that I realized the value of the mentors in my life. I am and have been blessed with wonderful mentors. Currently, I have an amazing advisory council; several of the members have stepped into mentorship roles in various ways.  As you might expect, just about everyone has strong opinions on how I should do my job (especially since I am a women and they are mostly men but that’s a post for another day). As you might also expect, these strong opinions vary considerably and are often mutually exclusive. This of course makes it quite interesting as the mentee. Early into my new job there were many people that I met with frequently from whom to seek  advice, but in the last few months there is only one.

Why that one you might wonder?  So much of the mentor-mentee relationship depends on chemistry and timing: a combination of where you are & what you need and whether it’s a good personal fit. There are so many reasons. Some are related to power both personal and professional. If I have a single innate skill it is the ability to pick those people with the most power in room out like beacons in the night. They simply shine brightly and I am attracted to the light like a moth to flame. Like they’d say in Firefly, shiny. But it is certainly not only that or even mostly that. The one I chose, or perhaps he chose me, held me accountable. Did I follow through on his advice? Did I hit that next milestone? There is a power is knowing that someone is watching, and expecting you to follow through. For me at least, there is power in knowing that someone will check in to ensure that I have made progress since the last meeting. I am pressure prompted. I need deadlines. So the fact that there is a person helping me to set the next goal, the next target, with a deadline (i.e. by our next meeting…) makes me incredibly focused and productive. These items are first on my list. They are done on time. I will be held accountable if progress is not made. I feel so much more productive and effective with this combination of mentorship and accountability.

My only concern is how to ensure that this mentor does not become my “Linus Blanket.” What’s the transition? In academia, there are clear breaks from one’s mentors: the awarding of the PhD, the transition from post-doc to faculty, etc. These are very clear milestones on well worn paths. In life, there is so much more gray. I have had a number of relationships turned upside down in the past. A boss of mine for more than a decade ended up reporting to me for a few years. Another boss of mine now serves as a peer (or according to some, subordinate to me) on a scientific project. These can be uncomfortable transitions for those concerned of power and title.  While one can find much advice on the mentor-mentee relationship, there is less to be found on that transition period from mentee to peer. How does one raise up the mentee to peer? When does one set the mentee free?

These questions are a major reason I was phobic about recruiting graduate students. I did have one briefly but handed her off to  person more suited to the role. In my new job, I am surprised still when students come to me for advice (/waves if any are reading). I met with two today. It is such a fun part of my job that I did not anticipate. Partly there is a shared camaraderie since I have taken many of their classes and have been down this path recently. Partly it is because they often love the program and praise our teachers and offerings. I love this. One today stopped in because she was curious and wanted to meet me. She was fun. We spoke for an hour of our wonderful teachers and discussed ways to make the program even better. The other was a scientist taking a few classes with us, who is about to do our business plan competition. I think he really just wanted some reassurance that it was OK to look off the well worn career path. Really it’s OK. Fun even.

About a decade ago I met an incredible women. She baffled me. Her career path was unique. She’d been an attorney. Did most of business school. Worked in a variety of legal and CFO roles. By the time I met her, she was into temp work. She’d come in as a temp – VP, CEO, CFO, etc to help during transitions. She rarely stayed in a job longer than 18 months. She never thought past the current job yet she was rarely out of work. At the time I met her and even until a few years ago, I did not understand her tolerance for and enjoyment of the uncertainty. I saw her a few weeks ago at a fund raising event. I said to her “I’m off my path; I no longer have a 5 year plan; I have no idea what the future holds; I feel so liberated.” She smiled and said “Isn’t it great?”