Breaker, breaker, hello out there loyal leaders! Capt. Fletch here trucking in a fresh edition of the Leadership Toolbox! In my quest for fresh greetings, I thought perhaps our group could use a nickname for loyal fans. For instance, Green Bay Packer fans have embraced their beloved Cheesehead nickname. Just food for thought. Perhaps you can shoot me some ideas while you gab around the coffee pot in the coming months!
Last month we looked at the value of leaders who take calculated risks on uncommon people, and how that approach could be a game changer for our industry. This month, I would like to look at another common word that we hear so often we may miss its true value: mentor.
It seems like I just wrote about the conclusion of a baseball season I coached, and here I am beginning another. This time I made the decision to move up to the high school level and give my son and me both some exposure to other coaches to help us grow. It has been a trip down memory lane for me, to say the least, and also a new opportunity to practice adaptive leadership with a new generation of players.
As I observe the landscape of high school baseball in the Las Vegas Valley, one thing is apparent: The pressure to perform is enormous. In a town that produced some of the biggest names in baseball past and present — Greg Maddux and Bryce Harper to name two — this city has deep roots in the American pastime. Parents, coaches and even players themselves have such high expectations that it creates an environment that can be difficult for a teenager to navigate (on top of whatever life stressors they may be experiencing).
I recall my time playing baseball in high school. I thought I felt a lot of pressure at the time, but the world has changed since then. When I look back on that time, I instantly recall the one person who helped everything click for me and helped me navigate life on and off the field: Lawrence Richmond, or “coach,” as I still refer to him out of respect. The word mentor was nowhere in my vocabulary at that point in my life, but coach was and still is perhaps the most influential mentor I ever had (aside from those related to me, although I consider him an older brother).
When I met coach, I noticed two things about him: He never really raised his voice, and he was always focused on helping the team and listening to the players to understand where our heads were at. Over the course of four years, he not only helped mold me into a great baseball player, but he also developed the framework of the leader punching the keys of these articles. The funny thing was, much like Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso, I did not realize it at the time because I just focused on the game. As I grew into my leadership boots, somehow what I was supposed to do seemed like second nature. It occurred to me that I kept referring back to how I handled different situations on the baseball field, and how coach and I worked through those situations both good and bad.
For instance, coach taught me the importance of getting to know every pitcher as a person, not just as a player. This helped me know how to approach them if they had trouble on the field. Some guys needed a more quiet chat while others preferred to get to the point. Fast forward to years later, and as a lieutenant commanding 400 troops it simply occurred to me to adapt myself the same way that I did to the pitching staff at Eleanor Roosevelt High School.
So, how did coach mentor me without me realizing it? To start, he made himself available to help. It was not a forced interaction or program on a checklist. He was simply there to help anyone motivated to get better. I was eager to improve my game and willing to work hard to be the best I could. Coach recognized that in me because he paid attention. He then proceeded to understand me as a person, as well as how to communicate with me. He talked to me as if I were a person and not just another name on the roster. Finally, he taught me how to control what I was able to, no matter what was happening around me.
How do we establish a culture of mentorship in our organizations? First, we have to concede there is no checklist for this. Second, we need mentors who actually want to be mentors. There is no value to forcing someone into a mentoring role.
Mentor is a word that I hear thrown around as a forced chore in many organizations. It is usually integrated into two words: mentorship program. These programs typically pair people up, sometimes without any regard to whether or not they might fit. Other times, people are left to seek out their own mentor. I always felt this was a tragedy. Mentor, to me, is an honorable title. It signifies someone with whom you seek council because you trust them to guide you in a good direction. It truly is a big responsibility.
How do we establish a culture of mentorship in our organizations? First, we have to concede there is no checklist for this. Second, we need mentors who actually want to be mentors. There is no value to forcing someone into a mentoring role. (It is also OK for one person to mentor more than one person!) Third, we need to create opportunities for mentors to be available to those seeking to improve. It does not bode well to force a person to be mentored either. When the connections are made, we need to give our mentors guidelines for what we expect and how to adapt themselves to mentees, but ultimately we need to give them the freedom to influence others by being themselves. After all, they are taking on a mentorship role because of their experience and value to our organization — and they want to do it.
Finally, we let the seeds planted grow. We check in with the mentors and ask how we can support them. True mentoring cannot boil down to a science. It is a fine line between structure and fluidity. But when it truly happens, it is irreplaceable. Add the mentoring tool to your toolbox. It has the potential to change the landscape of your organization. This is particularly true in a world where we seek to navigate how to communicate and work with diverse groups of people.
I am not sure that I would be the same person today had I not met Coach Lawrence Richmond. When I took the role of assistant head coach at a local high school, it was only fitting that the same number coach wore all his life, 24, was available for me. I took it as a sign I was in the right place and asked coach if he minded me wearing it. He gave me the green light once more. This season, there will be two number 24s manning the first base line, across the country from each other, quietly waiting for the next batter up.
Until next time, this is Capt. Fletch, over and out!