People Practice » Fragile and expensive: Handle mentoring with care

Effectively training the next generation of executives requires as much of a focus on the soft, psychological counseling side as it does around the traditional hard, mechanical skills.

Due to the amount of extra time required to do this correctly, especially with teams suffering from communication challenges, there are significant cost implications. Additionally, beware that some in your employ while smart, are often fragile, and need to be handled with care.

I am fortunate to be entering my 20th year teaching in MBA and undergraduate business programs (and during that entire time also running a private company). For nearly a third of my time working with students, a major focus has been mentoring 15-20 teams each year to compete in case competitions.

Case competitions come in all shapes and sizes but the general theme is always the same: a group is tasked with developing a strategic plan for a business challenge, presenting it in a timed format, and fielding Q&A from a professional judge panel— all while directly competing against other business schools.

Today’s business students are amazingly talented. I believe much of this comes from increased rigor, even as early as elementary school. After a routine fifth grade parent-teacher conference in public school, when everyone was blurry eyed at 7:30 am, one of our kids’ teachers concluded the meeting by saying: “Your son will be fine. But even now there’s a lot at stake for him, and a good education is more important than ever.” Ouch.

The good news is people are paying attention early. By the time these same ‘pupils’ enter college or grad programs, they’re armed with more knowledge, perspectives, and skills than I likely ever received until I had hit my early 30s. As a litmus test, just count the amount of stamps many kids have in the passports by the time they turn 21.

However, conspicuously absent from some students’ Superman-like tool kit is a comparably trained psyche of how to process the knowledge and correctly apply it. Part of what makes preparing students for case competitions such a wonderful aspect of my job is I get to extensively interact with them outside of a traditional classroom setting. No grades are handed out, or teacher evaluations completed. It’s one-on-one interaction in a no-holds barred atmosphere.

The students can let their hair down and be themselves. But seeing them in their natural habitat doesn’t necessarily tell the complete story, either: While I have been lucky to have worked with some wonderful teams, a few along the way have been problematic. For me, consistently winning a contest around solid communication fluency is a far more important medal to receive.

Here are three suggestions to further improve these students’ chances for success, as they move on to the next chapter of their lives, and enter the workforce in your company:

1) Choose language carefully:

Much as you have to think twice before picking up and moving a fragile package, so, too, do you need to be cognizant of effectively managing a young employee’s mindset. Especially when criticizing, your approach has to be thoughtful, and often using the nicest words possible. It’s equally important to keep the team focused on their job-at-hand to effectively compete, rather than getting mired in unimportant details.

Several years prior, on the eve of a major case competition, I didn’t heed my own advice and let the discussion veer too much toward my mentoring approach. At first, I thought the students’ chiding was a good-natured attempt to strengthen our rapport, and break down the barriers between a coach and their team. But after 15 minutes, I realized they were deadly serious. Also, I never saw coming that they would be unilaterally empowered to evaluate me. We needed to take a break and do a reset.

2) Insist on ongoing accountability:

In business, as in life, a lot of insecurity is often masked by outward bravado, or at times, downright entitlement. No matter how erroneous an individual’s analysis might be, he/she/they will try to shift the blame someplace else. This is often coupled with a dearth of personal accountability, let alone an admission of guilt. Here, I find it most effective to avoid engaging in a tit-for-tat type debate. Even when I know I’m 100% right, a student (regardless of their culture or background) won’t publicly acknowledge it. Instead, I let objective facts speak for themselves.

Despite the hours of time my teams and I put into preparing for these competitions, it’s statistically impossible for every squad to make it to the finals, or win. Fortunately, most judging panels offer written feedback for the non-advancing groups, which I can then openly share with my students. It’s very difficult for them to refute the same comment if it’s been independently echoed by multiple executives. More importantly, the fact that it’s depersonalized increases the chance people will better accept it.

3) Patience must be a virtue.

Plan to invest at least 50% more time (and maybe a full 100%) than you would have ever expected to complete a project the right way. But, such is the reality of management today. Issues that my former coaches and bosses didn’t even give me the time of day about—let alone permit a 45-minute group conversation around—are occasionally front and center in the workplace. Even after using my best efforts to effectively select members, based on resumes or through live, individual interviews, teams don’t function well in the aggregate.

For example, I remember one member of a group coming consistently late for preparatory meetings. Instead of speaking with their classmate directly, the rest of the team essentially went on strike until I brought everyone together to properly hash it out. I was willing to indulge everyone for 5 minutes, to once and for all put the issue to bed. An hour later, my head was truly throbbing. Post competition, things went from bad to worse. When we attempted to analyze what had gone right and wrong during the competition, the team spent even more time discussing its lack of chemistry and dysfunction. You can’t win them all.

Even for a well-oiled machine, the effort required to mentor an individual, or a manage a complete team, or is the epitome of the phrase time is money. However, the good news is that supervisory success is still possible, even for challenging groups. Senior executives who adjust their expectations in advance, appropriately rejig their time and monetary budgets, and maintain an outwardly positive demeanor can likely still achieve the same results our own senior bosses did when we were young, and coming up through the ranks.