A Mentor Trumps a Boss. Always.

I usually blog about topics relevant to growing your business; this week is no different, but we’re going to take a look at how the boss/employee relationship can make your productivity soar.

A wise woman once told me that you should only hire someone whom you could see eventually being your replacement. At the time I thought she was crazy. I was still in college, working as a co-op and as green as they come to the corporate world.

“Why would you do that?” I thought to myself. “Wouldn’t you always be worried that this person would, in fact, eventually replace you?!”

What a poor attitude, right? More like, what an inner admission of poor self esteem.

I was fortunate enough to be hired by and continue working for this woman for several years, she as a direct supervisor and then a member of senior management. To this day, I will tell you that I learned more from her than I did in all my years of college. Sure, my professors taught me how to write effectively, but she taught me how to engage effectively with others and how to be a part of a team- a team of people from different countries and cultures, and how to do so with confidence. At times I would become discouraged that I didn’t have the business acumen that comes with years of experience, but she would always say to me, “You have to forgive yourself your learning curve. You’ll get there.”

She was my mentor.

I was reading a great blog on mentoring from the Harvard Business Review titled “How GE Gives Leaders Time to Mentor and Reflect.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Launched in 2010, the Leader in Residence program is emblematic of a broader shift from prescriptive to collaborative learning taking place at Crotonville and elsewhere. In a complex environment, learning comes from a combination of discovery, dialogue, experience, reflection, and application. At Crotonville, we bring people from all over the world and from different businesses and contexts. We have to create the opportunity for each person to teach and learn, simultaneously, enhancing everyone’s perspective. David, like other leaders, uses this as a listening post — a venue to capture what’s happening around the company and the world in an encapsulated way…with Crotonville providing the opportunity to listen, test, validate, and absorb on the one hand, and to share, push, elaborate, and support the students on the other.

In all, the program has enabled some 75 of our top leaders and thousands of participants to connect on a human level and to reflect on work, self, and career in a way that would never be possible in either a traditional classroom or office setting. By giving leaders access to deeper levels across the organization, and, in turn, providing participants access to senior leadership, we have created greater cohesiveness throughout the company. We have never had a problem filling out classes even during the most trying of times. Based on the success of the program, as measured through participant surveys and feedback, we recently launched a global version (74% of Crotonville experiences are delivered outside the United States currently).

I sincerely believe that mentors are a must-have for every employee, especially those new to the workforce. Just think how much more effective your organization could be if each and every person felt lifted-up, valued and essential? Is this true for your organization today?

If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s Sir Richard Branson’s take on why mentoring is needed:

Mentoring was very important for me personally. For example, Sir Freddie Laker gave me invaluable advice and guidance as we set up Virgin Atlantic, while my mum has been a mentor throughout my life. Nowadays, I find mentors inside and outside of Virgin every day. If you ask any successful businessperson, they will always have had a great mentor at some point along the road. If you want success then it takes hard work, hard work and more hard work. But it also takes a little help along the way. If you are determined and enthusiastic then people will support you.

At let’s not forget that you’re never too old to learn. That’s right, more and more companies are beginning the process of what is called reverse mentoring.

Picture it, Sicily 1930. (If that made you giggle, then I know you’re a part of my generation.) But seriously, picture it: the older men and women who’ve been with your company for decades. They are revered. They are respected. They are terrified of social media. That’s where reverse mentoring comes in!

From “Reverse mentoring: students teach executives about social media, tech and more” via the Miami Herald:

The wave of 20-somethings heading into the working world know how to amass Twitter followers. They know how to text-message with their eyes closed. And they know how to digitally connect with influencers who can send business their way. Now, older workers must look to them to teach us how to be innovative.

In a trend called reverse mentoring, companies are pairing grizzled veterans with young up-and-comers. The arrangement works to retain eager millennials and keep older executives technologically and socially relevant. It’s going on at big companies including Cisco, Johnson & Johnson and Mars Inc., where formal programs are in place. It also has taken off at small companies, where informal reverse mentor relationships are born from mutual respect and candor.

Reverse mentoring is gaining traction for all the right reasons, says Terri Scandura, a professor of management at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. Even baby boomers who might bristle at the idea of being mentored realize the value in learning what motivates Gen Y and how to market to them, she says.

Last week, Citibank became one of those one of those businesses to tap into the digital wisdom of the younger generation. It launched a program that will pair 15 senior executives from the bank’s Latin America regional office with 15 graduate and undergraduate University of Miami business students. The duos will meet at least once a week for six months to work on specific projects that will take a fresh look at mobile payments, communicating with millennial generation customers, social media, the digital retail business and creating compelling job pitches for young talent.

“Our senior executives need to clearly understand trends and what motivates the new set of young professionals,” says Jorge Ruiz, who is based in Miami and is the head of digital banking for Citibank’s Latin America office. “They are not just our future clients but also our next leaders.”

The bottom line: No matter what your age, a mentor can be just the thing you need to push you in the right direction. These relationships only stand to improve your organization’s workforce and productivity.

Continuous Innovation

“Drive thy business, or it will drive thee.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

If you’ve been in business, particularly of the industrial variety, over the past several years, then you are familiar with the term continuous improvement. There are many variations on the CI theme, including Six Sigma, Kaizen and Lean.

Continuous Improvement (CI) can be defined as:  an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes. Whether the goal is “incremental” improvement over time or “breakthrough” improvement all at once, the delivery (customer valued) processes are constantly evaluated and improved for efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility.

To break it down further, here are some additional definitions:

Six Sigma– Six Sigma is a highly disciplined approach that enables a company to focus on creating and delivering nearly-perfect products and services. The underlying idea being that if you can measure how many “defects” you have in a process, you can systematically figure out a way to eliminate them and get as close to “zero defects” as possible.

KaizenKaizen (pronounced ki-zen) is Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” and refers to a philosophy or practice that focuses on continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering and business management.

Lean The core idea of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources. A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.

Many of the most successful and profitable companies in the United States are disciples of CI, including Motorola, GE, AT&T and Pella.

“One example of the way continuous improvement has improved our processes is the implementation of “just in time” (JIT) manufacturing — meaning that Pella Corporation does not carry a large inventory of products in stock. Instead, we build them “just in time” to meet our customers needs. This reduces costs — savings we pass on to you.”- Pella

Continuous Innovation?

Continuous Improvement and innovation are not interchangeable, but they are complimentary.

According to Robert E. Cole, from the University Of California-Berkeley, “This discussion begs the question of just how useful is the common categorization of continuous improvement versus innovation. The common assumption is that continuous improvement is small scale and that innovation is discontinuous and large scale. Yet, there is no logical reason to associate the term innovation with large-scale discontinuous change. Consistent with a dictionary definition, innovation is best associated with creative solutions, and these can occur at a small as well as a large scale, and can be more, or less, discontinuous. Put more bluntly, there is plenty of innovation that occurs in the course of continuous improvement.”

While the drive to maximize shareholder value has never been in higher gear, sometimes businesses are faced with an unfortunate side effect: disruptive innovation (innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in the new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.)

From Clayton Christensen, Similarly when Toyota was making rusty little subcompacts, it made no sense for General Motors to go after the subcompact market, when the profits they could get on bigger SUVs and pickup trucks made all the sense in the world. Toyota just made their products better and better, until eventually customers who used to [buy] bigger General Motors cars could now buy cheaper ones. Now Toyota is making the best in the world, while at the bottom, the Koreans, Kia and Hyundai, have stolen the low end of the market. It’s not because Toyota is asleep at the switch. They have to decide, ‘Should we go down and compete against Kia? Or should we go up and compete against Mercedes?’”

In response to the issue of disruptive innovation, most of you are probably aware of the new term that has popped up in the past few years: continuous innovation.

Continuous Innovation can be defined as the ability to combine operational effectiveness and strategic flexibility – exploitation and exploration – capabilities that have traditionally been regarded as antithetical. (International Journal of Technology Management)

Continuous innovation is seen by many experts in business to be the answer to disruptive innovation- although some also say that the former is not possible when a company’s main goal is to maximize shareholder value.

One company that has turned the naysayers’ objections on their ears is Apple.

“‘Anyone familiar with Professor Christensen’s work will quickly recognize the causal mechanism at the heart of the Innovator’s Dilemma: the pursuit of profit. The best professional managers — doing all the right things and following all the best advice — lead their companies all the way to the top of their markets in that pursuit… only to fall straight off the edge of a cliff after getting there….’

“Yet firms like Apple [AAPL] have been able to achieve continuous innovation and customer delight by setting aside maximizing shareholder value.

‘They [Apple] can do it because Apple hasn’t optimized its organization to maximize profit. Instead, it has made the creation of value for customers its priority. When you do this, the fear of cannibalization or disruption of one’s self just melts away. In fact, when your mission is based around creating customer value, around creating great products, cannibalization and disruption aren’t “bad things” to be avoided. They’re things you actually strive for — because they let you improve the outcome for your customer.’”

Jumping Off the Cliff

Letting go of the long-engrained value of having a laser focus on increasing shareholder value in favor of continuous innovation can be extremely hard for some companies. Externally, it’s a tough sell to investors; internally, it’s equally as difficult to get executives on board. That’s why continuous innovation can be nearly impossible to implement, let alone sustain.

From Forbes: “The inexorable shift from shareholder value to continuous innovation and customer delight will not be an easy transition for many companies: they will perceive it as too risky. However the much bigger risk in the medium term is not making the transition: by failing to get on a path of continuous innovation, the firm subjects itself to the more serious risk of disruptive innovation, which leads inexorably to corporate death.”

The bottom line: Most companies already engage in continuous improvement activities. Almost all have probably implemented some sort of innovation initiative.  Those that don’t subscribe to continuous innovation do so at their own peril.