If you had the choice between exploring a cave alone with no flashlight and exploring a cave with an experienced guide who carried a torch, which would you choose? Alone in the dark, you might still be able to use sound and touch to make it through the cave, but you would be doing a lot of guesswork. Clearly, it would be an easier (and more enjoyable!) journey with a guide.
The same goes for navigating an organization. Innovation-oriented leaders need to be paired with mentors who have traveled the organization’s winding path and can offer a greater understanding of its unique politics and methods.
How Does Mentorship Help?
How does a good mentorship program benefit newbies and the “been there, done that” crowd? It:
Drives Better Results
The most significant effect of a solid mentorship program is better results, and we all want those! The guidance and advice given throughout the process make innovation leaders more efficient and effective in their work. They are able to avoid a lot of skinned knees when they have a guide lighting the path.
Builds the Individual
Like the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the innovation leader should be growing and learning with each new initiative. Startup investors would never hand over their cash without knowing that the entrepreneur has the right coaches to help her succeed, so why wouldn’t companies make that same investment in their leaders? Innovation must be viewed as a system or process that can always be improved, rather than a bunch of individual projects.
Sustains the Organization
Just as mentors can help support the success of the individual, they can also promote the organization’s success by capturing and retaining the institutional knowledge gained through its series of successes and failures.
The innovation leaders who are drawn to this work oftentimes have very similar attributes to that of the entrepreneur. They are action-oriented individuals willing to take risks, and they have a low tolerance for bureaucracy and wasted time. These individuals have high turnover rates due to their personalities, an organization’s lack of planning or clarity regarding future opportunities, or both. As these risk takers move in and out of organizations, it can be the role of the mentor to capture the lessons learned and prepare the next generation of innovation leaders.
Vital Components of a Successful Mentorship Program
What sets a good program apart? It:
Being a mentor or mentee should not be optional. Before investors put money into a company, they ensure that the leader has the right board in place to help him succeed on his journey. A mature organization should not skip this step and assume that it will figure things out along the way.
Guarantees Swift Communication
In my personal experience and research, I have yet to see innovation leaders with an abundance of time for decision-making. Usually, the scene is described more like the triage area in a hospital, with brief reprieves among chaos. The fast pace of decision-making requires quick information exchanges and feedback loops.
The mentor and mentee should spend a few minutes discussing their preferred communication vehicles and their expectations for each. For example, what is the expected response time to an email, call, or text message?
An innovation leader I know began using a blog as a way to quickly keep his stakeholders up to speed on progress, as well as to address any issues with the initiative. The posts were intentionally brief, but frequent. This blog also served the team well when conducting a postmortem on a failed initiative.
Relates Personal Experience
The ideal mentor candidate is someone who has previously been an innovation leader and is more senior in the organization. An established leader knows the realities and emotions that come along with driving innovative work forward. If this kind of work is new to the organization, bring in an outsider with experience. The closer he can relate to the current setting, the better.
A more senior mentor helps the innovation leader as a forward lookout. The mentor sees potential structural changes and political landmines within the organization. With so many other variables at play during an initiative, the role of the senior mentor becomes imperative to successfully navigating the organization.
Starts from Day One of a Project
As soon as an initiative is green-lighted, there should be mentors identified to help the innovation leader. If organizations would spend even a fraction of the time they spend on financial analysis identifying the best mentors to help guide the initiative, they would see a much stronger showing from their innovation leaders.
There is never as much time or as many resources available as we want, so we prune which areas will get our time and attention. Mentorship programs frequently get pushed to the back burner. Innovation mentors need to be the exception to this rule to have a fighting chance to succeed; the leader’s role is to set expectations and follow through with them.
Shares Good Examples
If leaders want to drive sustainable innovation within their organizations, they need to communicate the importance of this work and engage everyone in supporting it from their respective disciplines. One of the most effective ways to do this is to show them what “good” looks like. Share the story of a successful innovation project, and demonstrate the importance of the mentors who helped guide the team along the way.
Whatever you do, don’t neglect the importance of mentorship for innovation leaders if you want better innovation. While you can always stumble your way to success, it’s much easier to find it with a light illuminating the way forward.
Matt Hunt has spent the better part of the last decade leading innovation for a Fortune 50 retailer and is now a professional writer, speaker, consultant, and founder of Stanford and Griggs, LLC. With over 20 years of business and technology experience, he has demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies, and nonprofit organizations. Follow Matt on his blog, MattHunt.co, or connect with him on Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.
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