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The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 32 :: Leadership :: Environment for Growth

If I’m listing the top five (maybe the top three) responsibilities of a leader, creating an environment that fosters growth absolutely makes the cut. An organization will most likely never grow beyond the person who leads it and individual divisions and departments will most likely never grow beyond the people who lead them. Unfortunately, we human being are wired for stasis. We run smack dab into Newton’s first law of motion, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an external force.” As a leader, it’s your job to be that external force.

During this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge exercise, I want to you to craft a framework that inspires and enables growth in your organization. The growth you want spans personal and professional, individual and team.

Use the ideas below like tools for your toolbox. Some of them I’d consider mandatory (like the first one) and others might or might not work in your organization. Pick and choose, add your own, then execute. Make lifelong learning part of your organizational culture (learning orientation is in my list of cultural imperatives. If you want to see my full list of culture imperatives, you can find it here).

Set the Example for Personal and Professional Growth – You should be hearing phrases like this come out of your mouth frequently, “I was just reading…”, “In the past, I would have…, but with what I’ve learned now, I’d…”,  “I had to apologize for…, because I found out I was wrong”, “My gut feel was…, but when I examined the data…”, “Swing by my office because I’d like to get your thoughts on…”. Spend time reading, taking a class, listening to a TED talk, journaling, and writing.

Embrace and Communicate that “Ego is the Enemy” – I’ve probably co-opted the title from Ryan Holiday’s excellent book a thousand times as I’ve talked and written. However, the real issue is whether or not I’ve embraced the message. We must never succumb to the temptation of thinking we know all there is to know about our job, our company, our customers, our people, or our processes. The minute we think we’ve arrived, the clock counting down our personal and professional destruction starts ticking. Advocate for personal and corporate humility. I often think about the encouragement from Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing. We don’t want to do our job the “best we can do it” (implying that our present capacity is the pinnacle). Instead, we want to do our job the “best it can be done” (implying that there’s more to learn and we’re going to drink it all in and apply it in our work).

Create a Mentorship Program – Pair mentees with mentors who will talk with them about professional growth, career paths, navigating office politics, balancing work and family responsibilities, moving from staff to supervisory roles and more. The mentor will learn just as much as the mentee. And you’ll automatically be building a couple of the factors that employees identified as indicative of solid management (see First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham). If potential mentors feel like this is outside their comfort zone, help them by creating a curriculum with discussion topics and resources.

Create an Environment where Good Risk is Embraced and Subsequent Failure after Good Risk is OK – If you never fail, you’re more than likely never doing anything that’s a stretch. People and organizations should do hard things. When the uncertainties surrounding hard things are pondered, good decision-making skills should be employed. Good decisions frequently result in bad outcomes (the batter frequently swings unsuccessfully at pitches that are low and away, but this time he hit a double). If your good risk appears to end in failure, you’ve at least learned some things (faulty product development, faulty delivery, faulting messaging). It’s never a bad thing to get an education.

Encourage Independent Work and Collaboration – Current research in productivity shows that neither bullpens nor private offices are optimal for the best outcomes. We need both. Employees need uninterrupted spans of time and privacy to do deep work (achieving flow). They also need engaging conversation with people who can challenge and sharpen the ideas they crafted working alone. Design workspaces and work schedules where both can happen.

Cross Discipline Knowledge is Golden – We have erroneously equated deep subject matter expertise with greater problem-solving ability in that discipline. For the sake of time, let me cut to the chase and say that thinking is wrong. In his book Range, David Epstein tells the story of two labs working on the same problem at the same time (proteins they wanted to measure would get stuck to a filter, which made them hard to analyze). One lab, staffed by only E. Coli experts, took weeks to solve the problem – experimenting with multiple methodologies. The other lab, staffed by scientists with chemistry, physics, biology, and genetics backgrounds, plus medical students, figured out the problem in their initial meeting. Deep subject matter expertise should be celebrated and leveraged, but to maximize peer-to-peer learning in an organization, utilize cross-disciplinary teams.

Make It Not All About Work – I know people who will come into an organization and do a Lunch-and-Learn on – Understanding Mortgages for First-time Homebuyers, Dog Training, Personal Finances, and Sleep. When your environment for growth includes growth opportunities for the whole person, you demonstrate another level of commitment to your team members.

Do the Traditional Stuff – Down through the years, employers have sent team member to seminars, enrolled them in online classes and paid for college degrees. Some of these might make less sense now, but there’s no reason to dismiss them entirely.

This is only a starter list, but it should get you on your way to creating a strong environment for growth in your organization.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week One :: People :: Critical Path

List three people whose absence, if they quit or were unable to work, would have significant operational impact on the business.

  1. _______________________________________
  2. _______________________________________
  3. _______________________________________


For each of those people, identify the operational impact.

  1. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  2. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  3. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________

On the graph below, plot the three people listed above based on their probability of leaving and the risk to the organization if they were to leave.

Presumably, if they made it into this exercise, they’re going to land in the top half of the graph – i.e. their departure poses a risk to the organization. There are two situations that could make a departure particularly perilous –

  • The employee is a critical path component in your company’s delivery of products or services – i.e. if this employee was gone, your ability to generate revenue would be crippled. Depending on the length of the absence and the depth of this employee’s involvement in critical path activities, this could put the entire enterprise at risk.
  • The employee is a single point of failure – i.e. this employee is the only one who possesses a particular skill or a particular body of knowledge.


In either of these situations, the urgency for addressing a departure ratchets up significantly. For this exercise, the action items below assume the only variable is the employee’s decision to stay or go. However, no person or company is exempt from unplanned events. That being the case, addressing these Critical Path employee issues is always urgent even if the current employee(s) is the most loyal and dependable in the organization.

For all the employees in this exercise (on both sides of the vertical axis), create the list below.

Employee Most Critical Skill Successor Percent Ready
Mary Set up new vendor Hannah 50
Bob Enter new orders Alice 20
Mary Do Payroll Steve 0
Tim Update Admin Settings in CRM Sarah 80

It’s possible, maybe even desirable, that a single employee will be listed more than once. If they have more than one critical path skill or single point of failure capability, you might want to split those skills and capabilities among multiple successors thereby eliminating the single point of failure. List the successors and their percent of readiness.

Create an action plan for each successor to make them proficient in the critical path responsibilities. The plan should include –

  • Knowledge to acquire
  • Skills to master
  • Experience to accumulate
  • Relationships necessary for execution and support


Assign mentors for each activity (it might be someone besides the current employee), establish milestones and set target completion dates. Check in with the mentors and successors to ensure that skills transfer is taking place.

If you have no one in the organization who could successfully execute the work of these critical path employees, start the process of recruiting, hiring and onboarding suitable successors. In addition to your normal regimen of finding new employees with shared values and cultural fit, add the skills required for these tasks to the job requirements.

Finally, for those employees who plot to the right of the vertical axis (high risk to the organization and likely to leave), move quickly to mitigate the risk. What can you do to keep them in the organization until you’ve identified and trained a successor? If they are seeking greater challenges, can you assign them more interesting work while they identify and train their own successor? Given the critical nature of the activities it might be unlikely, but can you identify a vendor, contractor or consultant who could step in if the employee’s departure put the business at risk?

Finally a bit of homework (definitely more than the 30 minute exercise). Document the work of every critical path employee. Create documentation that details –

  • The “why” behind each of their activities
  • The people they interact with to accomplish the activities – vendors, customers, peers, supervisors and subordinates
  • The systems they use (including usernames and passwords)
  • The data they enter into those systems
  • Any equipment they use to perform the work
  • Who they call if that equipment malfunctions
  • Any materials they use to perform the work
  • Where they obtain replacement materials
  • Any reports they use to inform their work
  • Any notifications they make prior to, during or after the work
  • And finally, complete, step-by-step instructions for the work itself

If successors are not on board when you start this documentation process, you might have to do it yourself to make sure it’s complete and easy to follow.

If you have questions on this week’s challenge, contact me at 816-509-9838 or

Use the comments section below to benefit other business owners and managers by sharing insights you gained by working on this week’s challenge.