Conversations with a mentor: chat about plans, mentoring, and knowledge sharing

Conversations with David Singer are usually more laid-back, but I was buzzing with a few things I wanted to pick his brains about, so he graciously let me flood him with questions and ideas.

I shared my realization about what I want to do at IBM—or where I want to help take the organization, to phrase it boldly. I want to build a truly interconnected organization where people can work together and lead anywhere. I told David how my short-term plans support that goal, and he helped me think about medium-term options. He understands my passion for collaboration, so if he comes across opportunities that might be a good fit, he’ll be able to recognize them. I have a long timeline, and where I am is as good a place as any when it comes to making a difference. =)

Prompted by my recent reflections on mentoring, I asked David about his thoughts on mentoring.

David talked about the difference between formal and informal mentoring. Formal mentoring relationships usually develop from existing working relationships and focus on specific goals. Because it’s formal and usually involves working with a superior, people hesitate to start these kinds of mentoring relationships. They worry about being a burden. Informal mentoring could develop from lazyweb requests, friendships, blog connections, and so on. These relationships could turn into formal mentoring, or they might stay casual. Both parties learn a lot from the exchange, and the conversations are not only productive, but also fun. I’d like to have more informal mentors (it takes a village!) as well as build informal mentoring relationships with more people. That’ll be one of my objectives for 2010!

I also shared one of my other projects for next year: document and share what I’ve learned at work, or as much of it as I can. We talked about the difference between formal and informal knowledge sharing as well. I’m interested in sharing a lot more of the informal knowledge at work. Formal assets like presentations and papers are great, but a lot of insight is missing in the middle. Social media is a great way to find role models who work on sharing what they know. There’s so much to learn!

We talked about a lot of other things: seasons, USB drives, headsets, VOIP, holidays, life… Lots of fun!

  • I wouldn’t necessarily categorize formal mentoring as working with a superior. I would agree that formal mentoring should involve some recording of goals (e.g. 1-year horizon, 5-year horizon) as well as some regular periodicity (i.e. a formal time set up quarterly, semi-annually or annually).

    You seem to have picked up on a lot of informal mentors on topics at hand. While this tends to relieve the pressure on a single mentor to coordinate meetings, it also tends to put the burden on the mentee to ask each of the mentors for guidance on specific topics.

    I’ve tended to avoid the word mentee, preferring the term protege, which has the sense of “protecting” in its entymology. I would also differentiate mentoring from coaching, which is more about skills transfer and less about guardianship.

  • <laugh> Yes, I’m very lucky to have lots of mentors, including you! Mentors tend to have well-defined interests that I remember when I come across something I want to explore further. For example, David’s interested in technology and society. You have a lot of insight into GBS and systems. Others think a lot about entrepreneurship, networking, public speaking, consulting, books, work-life balance, presentation design, research, and so on.

    Having many mentors means I need to be more proactive about my growth (and that I occasionally balance differing perspectives), but that’s okay. =) It makes sense. I like asking questions and figuring out life.

    Other metaphors for mentoring lean more towards the mentor taking responsibility – grooming proteges, etc. That would be interesting to explore. What would that look like?

    I wonder why formal mentoring isn’t more prominent in my career plans. Perhaps it’s because I keep myself publicly accountable, so that helps me move towards achieving my goals? I look for coaches when I’m working on stretch engagements, and that really helps me learn. Maybe when I identify the next position I want to take, a formal mentor from that group can help me figure out how to become an even better fit for it.

    Thanks for differentiating between concepts! I really appreciate your help in exploring the nuances.