Mentoring is one of those things that seems to make tons of sense to people but rarely if ever gets done. The days of new employees being given a formal mentor and six weeks to six months of “ramp up time” appear to be long gone for most companies, regardless of their size or industry.

I’ve heard horror stories from some recent interns explaining how they were hired, put on a large project, and never received a bit of training or mentoring. At the end of the internship, both the intern (who learned nothing and gained no experience) and the company they worked for (who wondered why they wasted money on an intern who didn’t do anything) saw the internship as a huge failure.

Similarly, even the most experienced employees don’t seem to have time (or don’t take the time) to hone their skills. Too often, the unspoken motto is “we only take time for training and mentoring when everything else is done”. And the truth is, everything else is never done!

In the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of mentor is simply “to advise or train”. When I did a quick search on for mentoring books, I was astonished to see that of the first five that came up in my search, the books averaged 234 pages (for the engineering types in the audience it was actually 234.4). Let’s assume you could read 100 pages in a couple of hours. Just to read a book on mentoring would take you 4+ hours. If it takes 4+ hours to read a book on mentoring, surely it would takes days and weeks of invested time to effectively mentor someone, right? I say absolutely not!

Allow me to suggest a basic profile of the typical knowledge worker in a professional services business.

1. There is a high expectation for them to be current on trends in their respective market.

2. Significant pressure exists to ensure that a very high percentage of each day’s work is “billable work”.

3. Developing a broader and deeper level of expertise makes them more valuable to their firm, and enhances their ability to be more consistently “billable”.

4. They have a desire and a need to use some of their time away from the office to spend with family, friends, or other areas of non-work related rejuvenation.

5. They are often told by their management, “it is important to keep your skills honed and to learn new things” and then told within the next hour “You want training?  What do you think weekends and nights are for!”

Do you see the conflict? Learning is paramount, but there’s no time for learning!

Enter the concept of Micro-Mentoring. This is not, as someone recently asked me, “mentoring of very small people”. It is the concept of mentoring in very small blocks of time and does NOT require an ongoing commitment. I wish I knew who to give credit to, but I cannot recall who first suggested it to me. The concept was presented to me about 20 years ago as I had transitioned into a new business unit in a large company. I was in a role that I was familiar with, but had no understanding of the particulars, regarding how that business unit actually worked. No one had time (SURPRISE!!) to take me under their wing and tell me all about the business. In addition, I was expected to be productive day one. I was having a difficult time doing my job, with such a limited understanding of the business. I went to someone (again, I wish I could remember who to give credit to) and they suggested that I do the following:

1. Create a prioritized list of the things that you need to learn.

2. Find out who in the firm is most knowledgeable about that topic.

3. Contact the “expert” and ask for 15-30 minutes of their time to “pick their brain” about the topic. Specifically tell them not to prepare.

4. Schedule a meeting (again, 15-30 minutes).

5. Arrive to the meeting prepared with good questions, listen and learn.

Sounds simple? It is. What was amazing was the nature and effectiveness of the teaching that took place in these short, ad-hoc sessions.   I’m not sure how/why it worked so well, but it did.  Perhaps, when people “prepare” to teach someone, they get too formal in their thinking and worry too much about presentation, outline or flow and not the content.  On the other hand, the main reason it works so well may be tied to the fact that there is a very short time frame and that both people tend to be laser focused on the most impactful information, instead of worrying so much about a proper order of topics.  I don’t think it matters why, but I do know that for me, this approach has been very effective.  More than once I’ve walked away with a scribbling on a note pad or a picture of what was written on the white board, that I used years later explaining the same topics to others.

Recently, C5 Insight began a new mentoring initiative.  We put together a matrix of what everyone wanted to learn and what people’s areas of expertise are.   We match people up on a quarterly basis and ask them to meet at least twice per month.  At the end of the quarter, we change mentors and topics.   This is working really well for our firm, but honestly, we are a tad on the odd side.  Most companies don’t put an emphasis on such things and allow the employees time during the work day to learn new skills.

Whether or not your company has formal training and mentoring , the concept of Micro-Mentoring is likely underutilized.   Again, this is really very simple.  Try to keep it that way!  I think you will be surprised at how willing people will be to “mentor” each other, and how effective a 20 minute, focused ad-hoc conversation can be.

By the way, could I get 15 minutes of your time to pick your brain about flux capacitors? 

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