February 11, 2022
Top Tips for Mentoring and Developing Teams
This article was originally published on Georgian’s Growth Network, a private community designed to help Georgian companies scale their businesses through peer-peer collaboration and knowledge transfer. All employees from Georgian companies are invited to join the Growth Network here.
During my career, I’ve had several strong mentors, managers and coaches who have challenged me and helped me grow, both personally and professionally. On the flip side, I have been in the manager seat for almost 30 years (currently, I’m the Vice-President of Information Technology at Tracelink). I’ve also been a volunteer softball coach for more than 10 years and participated in a highly rewarding mentorship program called American Corporate Partners that helps military veterans transition to their next careers.
Being on both sides of the mentoring/managing/coaching relationship has taught me some important lessons about developing teams, and I’m pleased to share some tips with my peers in the Georgian community.
I think of these tips as sort of a continuum, beginning with the talent acquisition process and rippling through the talent development lifecycle:
Phase 1: Acquire
Find out what makes someone tick
During the talent acquisition phase, it’s critical to understand what motivates each individual who may join your team. I take the time to personally interview all finalists for all positions. When I’m talking to candidates, I want to understand what they’re passionate about, what drives them and what ignites a spark. You can tell when someone lights up because they’re talking about something truly meaningful. At the same time, I want to understand what they aren’t interested in doing.
With this insight, you can envision the fit between your team’s initiatives and each candidate’s passions to bring out their best, right from the start. If people are excited about a particular task or project, they tend to be more motivated and dedicated. That creates a win-win: They do great work; you get great results.
Take a chance
After grad school, I applied for a job at a software company. I didn’t think I’d get the job because I lacked some of the technical requirements. But I ended up being hired because my manager believed I had the capabilities I needed to grow into the role, and he took a chance on me. This was a powerful and humbling experience—and I’ve tried to pay it forward ever since.
Sometimes you’ll encounter candidates who don’t check all the boxes on your job description. By looking beyond his or her current skills, you may see future potential that can be cultivated. Taking a chance on a curious and driven candidate can pay off, even if they lack some skills or have an untraditional resume. It’s about having a long-term view vs. solely solving for today’s challenges.
Phase 2: Invest
Put the puzzle pieces together
Starting a new job is a wonderful moment, full of promise and possibility. Don’t miss this opportunity to deepen your knowledge about a new employee.
When someone new joins my team, regardless of their level, I spend time with them and follow up on the conversations we had during the interview process. As I mentioned above, this helps me set new candidates up for success. But it also helps me figure out how they will best fit into the existing team.
Team building is like a puzzle. Gaining a deeper understanding of what each new hire brings to the established team will help you adjust and rebalance, so all the pieces fit.
Look for transferable skills
Your team’s mandates and challenges will inevitably change over time. Try to think through how individuals’ skills might be reapplied to new situations. Got someone with strong interpersonal skills? They may be great at training employees down the road. Got someone else who’s a whiz at research and planning? They could be tapped as a project manager for a big project or roll-out.
I learned this lesson firsthand: I’m an architect by training and, early in my career, I did a lot of work with CAD and 3D modeling. At a subsequent job, although I was in a technical role, I was asked by a manager to assist with a large M&A integration project at the corporate level. This manager believed that my ability to organize and build things with precision could be channeled in a different way. By helping me see how to apply my skills, and supporting me when I did, this manager pushed my career in exciting new directions. She had a vision for me that I didn’t have for myself, at the time. You can do the same for your employees to help them grow.
Phase 3: Retain
Be yourself—and be a good listener
Your employees are a group of real people with feelings, fears, aspirations and frustrations. Just like you. You don’t have to be buttoned up all the time—you can be funny or loud or vulnerable. Sharing some of yourself is key to developing trust and enhancing communication with your team.
I remember the first time I had a manager who was completely authentic—it was so refreshing. He was also good at creating a safe space where employees could talk, and he could listen.
This experience taught me that listening sessions are key to mentoring and developing teams. In fact, I have a 30-minute, one-on-one call with each member of my team once a month. These aren’t, “What’s the status of your projects?” calls. They’re “How are you, and how’s your family?” calls. Especially during COVID, while we’re all craving more personal connections, these calls have been a great way for my team and I to get to know each other—and keep the dialogue flowing.
Once you’ve established a dialogue, it’s much easier to address challenges that come up. If someone’s performance is declining, or if they’re at odds with their teammate, a listening session provides a built-in mechanism where you can ask, “Is everything OK?”, hear your employees’ response and craft solutions together.
Prioritize professional development
In each listening session, I carve out time to discuss professional development. I ask each team member to outline their professional development goals and hold them accountable. It can be online classes, a conference, a user group meeting, a certification, or something else. The point is to get out of the office and gain some fresh perspective.
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to make this possible for your team. It will never be a good time to be out of the office. There will always be something more pressing or important. But blocking time on the calendar and supporting your team’s professional development goals will boost morale, amp up engagement, and pay dividends in the long run.
Let technologists shine
At some point in their career, most tech folks face a fork in the road: take the management path or the individual contributor path. We tend to support and focus on the managers but growing an individual contributor’s skills is just as important.
To that end, I let my technologists explore. Beyond the professional development opportunities I mentioned above, I try to create special projects or spaces where they can experiment. If someone wants to goof around with a new technology, or find new uses for decommissioned equipment, I’m all for it. Exploring and building things is what techies do best.
I also make sure my team members get to step into the spotlight. IT is often considered a type of utility service, with technologists quietly and reliably delivering in the background. I make sure their amazing accomplishments and elegant solutions are visible and acknowledged in public forums as much as possible, whether it’s through stakeholder communications or at management meetings. Praise and recognition fill the tank and keep the team on track.
Some of you who are reading this may be new to a management role and looking to enhance your skills. Here’s one final piece of advice: You can’t become a good manager and mentor overnight. It takes time, care, inspiration from other managers and mentors, and a commitment to long-term gains. Think of it like a garden: Plant seeds, nurture them well, and you’ll end up with growth and abundance.
But don’t just take my word for it. You can measure the effects of your “gardening” in team attrition rates. At my last company, where I spent seven years, IT had one of the lowest global attrition rates. Feedback from HR and other sources attributed this to many of the concepts I’ve outlined above.
Although I have been at TraceLink for just over three years, we are trending the same way. This further strengthens the idea that if managers are also mentors, we can promote long-term happiness and success for team members and organization alike.
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