Be More Podcast: What Makes an Effective Mentor with Wendy Axelrod
In this podcast we’re joined by Wendy Axelrod, executive coach, author, speaker, and mentor at Wendy Axelrod PhD.
In this podcast we’re joined by Wendy Axelrod, executive coach, author, speaker, and mentor at Wendy Axelrod PhD.
Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Wendy Axelrod, executive coach, author, speaker, and mentor at Wendy Axelrod PhD.
Being a mentor is not easy. The responsibility placed on you to teach, guide, and support another person is immense. But that shouldn’t stop you from sharing your knowledge and experience.
Wendy Axelrod is passionate about development and is the creator and moving force behind a renowned regional mentoring program in Philadelphia for HR professionals. In 2017, she was identified as the regional “mentoring guru.” Wendy consults with companies to strengthen mentoring programs as a key component of their talent development strategies.
Today, Wendy shares the wealth of knowledge and personal experience that she’s built during her decades-long career. She explains what works and what does not work with mentoring, while also sharing her beliefs about the most crucial part of any mentoring program—and how focusing on intention is critical for success.
I think mentors need to build a relationship to be respectful, trustworthy, and safe. They need to know what it takes to create what I call a safe, conversational space. And when a mentor establishes that, it’s conducive for opening up a person’s perspective, increasing their self-awareness, and allowing for risk-taking and experimentation.
Patrick: With 20 years of experience in creating, managing, and consulting on mentoring programs, I feel that it is safe to say that Wendy Axelrod is a true professional with mentoring. When Wendy and I were able to align our schedules and have a conversation about her experience and perspective, I jumped at the opportunity to add this episode to this season of Be More. In the next 30 minutes, Wendy shares her wealth of knowledge and personal experience that she has gained through these two decades. She explains what works and what does not with mentoring, what she believes is the most important part of any mentoring program, and how a focus on intention is critical for success. Wendy, thank you so much for joining the conversation today.
Wendy: My pleasure to join you today, Patrick. Thank you.
Patrick: I am excited because we were just doing a little bit of preparation for this, and we have so much to talk about. I’ll just share with the audience, as I started the conversation with Wendy, I know that I know Wendy from somewhere. I was wondering, I was like, “Is it a conference that we were at?” I can’t put my finger on it, but Wendy and I feel that have definitely crossed paths at some point over the past 15 or so years. Wendy, I’m very happy and thankful that you are joining the conversation today.
Wendy: I’m also quite grateful.
Patrick: Because you’ve had such an amazing career, and I always like to start with you telling the audience a bit about your journey, through your words. Tell us a bit about how you have developed your career, and how you got started in mentoring because it’s a bit different, I think, than people would expect. Particularly around mentoring. Tell us a bit about your journey.
Wendy: Thank you, Patrick. I would say from the time I was in my late teens, I had a fascination to learn more about people and psychology. Then in my junior year of college, having taken most of the psych classes, I realized I did not want to go in the traditional method of counseling clinical psych as my sister and my dear friends were all doing. Instead, I wanted to understand more about people when they were functioning at their very best. The choice then was the field called organizational psychology. Today, frankly, I would have taken positive psychology, but that was the field. I graduated with my doctorate, I went into work as a corporate leader, I did leadership development, something called talent development. I headed a Fortune 50 corporate university, and also worked in collaboration with the executive team at that company to implement some corporate-wide cultural change. I was doing big stuff. Over the years, I began to work as a consultant in a number of industries. I actually narrowed, narrowed, narrowed my focus more and more to helping leaders and managers understand what it takes, what are the right conditions to really develop other people, and what does it take for them to help people be at their very best? That was the professional side. Meanwhile, on the volunteer side of my life, I was president of a widely respected professional association in the greater Philly area. I created and implemented a mentoring program for the newer folks in the field, and I became a mentor in that program. As we worked that program, we worked on assessing what practices made the difference. The program is now 20 years old. It’s evolved based on what we’ve learned. Many companies in our area have actually copied this program to use internally, or happily, they’ve come to ask me to help shape their programs. I want to say being a mentor has been one of the most growthful, gratifying aspects of my life. A couple years ago, the Association for Talent Development came to me and asked me to write a book for which they already had a title, which was 10 Steps to Successful Mentoring. I said, “I’m already working on a mentoring book. I’m not a 10 steps kind of girl. That is not a cookbook arrangement here.” We worked it out so that it wasn’t going to be 10 sequential steps, but important things that you needed to know. I did the book, and having written it, it’s been an incredible experience for me because I continue to have many more conversations about mentoring, like today, with a much wider set of folks. That’s the journey I’ve taken with this.
Patrick: Incredibly impressive, Wendy, because I love the fact that you started a volunteer mentoring program 20 years ago, still in operation today, has grown and developed and seen so much success. As you said, you are the author of multiple books, but in the most recent one around these mentoring, 10 steps to mentoring. We’re going to talk a bit about this concept of an intentional process, intentional mentoring, because you have some really insightful perspectives on mentoring programs, the value, how somebody really can develop the skill of mentoring, and also some things that are quite frankly, just not good to do with mentoring. Can lead in wrong directions. First, let’s start out with this idea around mentoring being an intentional process. Tell us a bit about how you view mentoring as an intentional process.
Wendy: Mentoring is intentional because there are things the mentor needs to be, there are actions the mentor needs to take, and there are actions the mentor should not take. I think you highlighted that well. Very broadly, this is really about two big elements. Build the relationship, and use development skills. What does it mean to fully develop another? You know what, a lot of times, mentors think this is all about a nice conversation, we’ll get to know each other, we’ll be friendly, I’ll be there when you have a problem, I’ll help you solve that, we can talk that through, just know I’ll be available, I’m there for you. Therefore, it is mostly about the relationship and the experience and knowledge of the mentor to guide the mentee. That’s not my brand of mentoring. My brand of mentoring, and many others, is about building that relationship, key. Absolutely key. Yes, you’ve got this deep background, but the distinguishing feature is knowing what they are and how to use the development skills. I think mentors need to build a relationship to be respectful, trustworthy, and safe. They need to know what it takes to create what I call a safe conversational space. When that is established, it’s conducive for opening up a person’s perspective, increasing their self-awareness, and really allowing for risk-taking and experimentation. Those are all things that a mentor who’s being at their best will help that person do. We need to understand who they are. What’s interesting is you need to meet the mentee where they are, not where you expect them to be. I’ve worked with scores of mentors, if not hundreds. Over and over, the mentor reads the profile, and has an idea already about where they want to take the person. Before they’ve even met them. I have one mentor who said, “You’re doing the matching. I’m only going to serve as a mentor if you find me a mentee who has the following qualities.” Imagine that all the preconceptions that that person is making, you are not appreciating and letting unfold what is the uniqueness of that individual. The last thing we want to do is move toward making a mentee a Patrick 2.0 or a Wendy 2.0. We need to meet them where they are, we need to have time to let things unfold. There are a lot of skills around listening, and your presence with them, and your reliability with them that will help to create that trusting, safe relationship.
Patrick: I love your point on a bit of risk-taking, and feeling in a safe environment to talk about the potential that maybe you would be or a person might be a bit fearful of, or hesitant to talk about or experience or even attempt. I really like this idea about being able to create this environment where both mentor and mentee can be in a safe space and be able to talk a little bit about risk-taking because personally, I feel that that’s an important part of growth and development, is being okay to take some risk. Not being completely risk-averse. Let’s talk a bit about developing these skills. How do you view, and how do you see development of mentoring skills?
Wendy: Yes. Developmental skills, I think, are the key differentiator of the best mentors. They know, as you used the word intentional, they know there is an intentional practice in growing another. You’re going to facilitate someone’s growth, not solve their problems. When we swoop in quickly to give them a solution to a problem, we may be missing the prime opportunity for their growth, which is the opportunity to look inside, to check out their own thoughts and feelings, to identify their assumptions and their perspectives. If we quickly solve the problem, we bypass all of that. We want to give them lessons for a lifetime. Not learn a method to solve their current challenge. Though that will come too. Helping another cannot just be logical, it must be psychological. We’re increasing their self-awareness, and that is so important. They usually don’t get any of that at work. Once the trust is established, which we talked about as part of the relationship, and they feel respected and safe, they’re going to lean into co-creating a path for their development. The mentor can help them shape some pilot tests of new behaviors, and then later debrief that with them. I can think of an example of someone who wanted to step up to team leadership. She talked with her mentor about what would be required. One of the things that she wasn’t very good at was delegating effectively. She did a lot of prep around it, they talked around it, they talked about it, she watched somebody do it really well and then she stepped in. That was her experiment. She did it, and what happened? She got questions she didn’t expect. She got push back. She handled it, but the development really wasn’t going to take place conceptually, until she actually applied it. One of the things we do as mentors, another area of skill for us, is how we formulate our questions, and deliver those questions, and then really listen to them, is really a great tool. Not ask the question with an answer in mind. We also should have some developmental tools ready for them. Other people that they can speak with. Recommendations of books, articles, podcasts, journaling, these all complement the actions that they themselves use to grow new skills, but it should never be an assignment. The primary thing that’s happened between the mentor and the mentee is that conversation that spurs them. I have a philosophy about making every day a development day. If the mentor believes that it’s for both the mentor and the mentee, what they do in their conversation spurs the mentee to be thinking about these kinds of things every day. The regularity of meetings, not just when I’ve got a problem, but regular meetings, then gives me the next time as a mentee to bring it back, to talk it through. I’m eager to do that. Then we fine-tune, we reflect on what occurred, where’s the lesson in that? Reflection, by the way, is one of the most underutilized methods for development. When we reflect, and we think about what our positioning was, what we were feeling, we articulate that, and then we talk it through, that cements some learning, and actually gives you motivation for what could be the next thing. Those are some of the things. A long, long list of what skills mentors can develop for themselves. That’s the front end of a number of great things that a mentor can do.
Patrick: Wendy, what do you think about telling experience stories? As a mentor, sharing experience stories with your mentee as you’re going through the process. I ask the question because I recently had a conversation where a mentor has had a very successful career. This mentor is mentoring a young, and when I say young, young in their career, professional, that has a very bright future. Has done an incredible amount within their first couple of years in the workforce. As I was talking to this mentor, who is a friend of mine, he was struggling a bit with, I feel like I have all of these experiences, and some of the challenges that she comes to the mentor with, he’s like, “Oh, I had a similar experience. 15 years ago, I had an experience, and this is how I handled it.” How do you feel about bringing in personal experiences and stories into the mentor relationship? I’m just curious. As you were talking about that, it just struck me, and I’m just curious to see what your thoughts are.
Wendy: I would say, to bring in your personal experiences judiciously. That if that becomes the regular modality, you are basically letting the mentee know, do it like I did it. Or you’re saying to them, “Look at how I did it, what lessons do you draw from it?” I think it is good because they want to know who you are and what you have done. Start, first, with questions that get them to think about the experience and what could be different, or how they might address it. Do the exploratory questions. If your story still fits after you’ve done that, give them some story. Not a whole lot of time should be spent on your stuff. They are the star of the conversation. They are the star, and where it is that they see things going. I’ve seen too many times, there’s a lot of mentoring programs that I come into. It’s their second or third round in the company because the first couple rounds didn’t take. It is sometimes because the mentors do not understand the right way to do it. They go with what their gut tells them to do, so they draw on that story. Her stories, I’m sure, are fabulous. I would love to hear them. Yet, don’t start with that, and be judicious.
Patrick: You just talked about mentor programs within organizations. Many organizations are building mentor programs now. As they listen to this episode, many have mentor programs that have been successful, or as you said, have had many iterations over the years. Many right now are just thinking, “I need to create a mentor program in my organization.” Growth and development of members of organizations has never been more important or more critical, I feel, than it is today. I would venture to say every company, or a high amount of companies around the world are focused on, how do we develop and grow our talent within our organizations? What do you feel is or are some of the most important parts of any type of structure, and I use the word structured. Maybe that’s not the right word, but have a mentor program, a formal, structured, however you want to say it, but a program within an organization. Is there anything that you could say stand out as, these are a couple of areas, in your experience of working with so many mentoring programs, building them for organizations, helping companies restructure, look at their mentoring programs in a new way with a new perspective, and from a new angle, is there anything that stands out to you as, this is a super important part of any successful mentoring program? Do you have any suggestions for the audience?
Wendy: Yes, thanks for that question. I’m going to give a little bit of a drum roll before I get to the big part of the answer.
Patrick: I love it.
Wendy: Here’s what I want to say. You need to do many aspects well. You need to know the purpose that you are trying to achieve. You need to have someone with great insight, who’s leading this. It can’t be an intern putting this together, because it’s not going to cost us much, therefore, let’s have an intern do it. Believe me, I’ve come across that. You need to have program design. You need to know how you’re going to screen participants, match the pairs. You need accessibility to tools for all the participants. You need the training of mentors, the kickoff, the interim meetings, all of those need to be done well. Let me just say this, that’s the drum roll. After all of that is set in place, and set to go, the success of the program largely hinges on the mentors themselves. The achievements accrued rests with the ability of the mentor. My answer is, it is the nurturing and development of mentors that I consider to be the most important among all the important pieces. Yes, the mentors have many years of experience, and that counts for a lot, but it’s not sufficient. For any role that we do in a company, or anywhere in life, an individual needs to have their skills cultivated, whether they are an engineer, a marketing associate, or a podcast interviewer. What makes us think we can simply go into that position of mentor and know how to do it well? This is the reason why many programs, actually, 70% of companies have mentoring programs, and more than 50% of their programs fail. That’s why in the past they have failed, but it’s getting better and better. The other piece of this is, even on the relationship part, if you just think of it as a relationship, over the last two to three decades, there’s been a premium paid on all kinds of books and ideas out there about how to build relationships, better ways to interacting with your spouse, a parent, and [unintelligible 00:22:18] did a whole thing on how to develop with a friend. This needs to be very thoughtful, and we need to nurture and develop our mentors. That’s my number one thing.
Patrick: Wendy, we’ve talked about effective mentors, and what really to focus on. Particularly around behaviors, and providing the space for these open conversations. In your experience, could you share some insights on ineffective mentoring? Maybe some mistakes, or things to avoid, or what focus area may create an ineffective mentoring relationship?
Wendy: I love the question. If I give you a long list of what to do that’s ineffective, I’ll be speaking about my own history, [laughs] because we all make those mistakes.
Patrick: Yes, yes.
Wendy: The process that unfolds for mentees that we want mentors to do is, help mentees along the way as they encounter different challenges. It’s true for mentors. By the way, even if there are ineffective things that we all do as mentors, we are in this thing also for our learning. It is one of the huge benefits of a mentoring program, for a company, that the mentors are gaining all of this skill, and learning so much. When we talk about ineffective behaviors, we got lots of them. Here are some. Some of the things are having that expectation of where we want the mentee to be, telling our own stories as if that should be the model. This whole thing of telling, selling, and yelling, I get the complaint. I meet with mentors all the time, in monthly meetings sometimes, and one mentor comes in and he’s so frustrated. “I’ve gone over this with her every single time and she doesn’t get it. She won’t do it.” He keeps harping back to that. I said, “Are you asking questions about what’s driving her? Are you asking her what assumptions she’s making? Are you asking her what she’s dealing with here, or are you just being direct?” Being directive, telling, selling, yelling, not a good approach. Those are also, the other thing is not anticipating some bumps in the relationship. Experienced mentors know that bumps occur, for all kinds of reasons. You could have, it feels sluggish. Where’s our momentum? I don’t relate to this person. Gosh, they’re asking me about all kinds of things that seem outside the realm. Those are all normal. I want the mentors out there to hear this. Those are normal things, and you can address them. There are specific ways to address all kinds of mentoring relationship issues.
Patrick: That’s a very important point, is not everything is going to be smooth sailing in a mentoring relationship. There’s a lot of need for patience. I feel that mentors, and this just drives back to that statement that you made around the most important part of a mentoring or a mentorship program, is the nurturing and the development of mentors. Because when you put out the term or say the word mentor or mentor program, I feel that there’s a significant amount of expectation that comes with that word. There’s this image of what a successful mentor is, or how they act, or how they approach mentoring. I really like this idea of nurturing and developing mentors to be comfortable in conversations, in the situation, in the role of being a mentor. A follow up question to that is, how long, and I don’t know if there’s an answer to this, but in your experience, how long does it take for someone that is new in a mentoring program to really feel confident, and to be proficient, or really confident in being a mentor? Is it a month? Is it a year? Is it five years? I guess it’s different for everyone, but what do you see in your experience in how much time it takes to develop mentors?
Wendy: That’s such an interesting question. What’s the [unintelligible 00:27:20] for me in answering that, is this one program I’ve worked in for 20 years, and I’ve been able to watch mentors grow with each successive cycle. I don’t think any of them have done 20 years as a mentor, maybe one or two. I’ve been able to watch them. These are people that are in the field of learning and development, human resource executives, da, da, da, da. We’re going to say they’ve already got a leg up. It depends on their style. Some people are personality type, or developmentally oriented, and good listeners and all of that. I think it takes at least two cycles of mentoring when you’re new, to really get your mentoring legs, [chuckles] so that you’re not buffeted. The other part of that is, I also don’t like it, the ones that have been doing it forever, when I ask them at the end, “What is it that you learned from this experience?” They’re like, “Well, it was very pleasant, but I really didn’t learn much new.” I’m like, “Okay, guys, wait a second here. Set a goal for yourself as you do each new mentoring relationship. Set a goal.” It could be based on the difference that that person represents for you, or some new thing that you have been wanting to learn about in neuroscience, or conversational intelligence that you’re going to put to use, and you’re going to hone that skill. I think it’s an ongoing process, and it goes on for as long as you have that curiosity, but I think two good cycles, I think after that you’re feeling pretty good.
Patrick: Wendy, you talked about writing a book specifically on mentoring, and mentorship, tell us a bit about that book. The title of it, and a bit about what a reader could expect from having it.
Wendy: The title of the book is, 10 Steps to Successful Mentoring, the publisher is Association of Talent Development. They are the people to know what ought to happen with mentoring relationships. As I mentioned earlier, it is not 10 sequential steps, but it really tells the reader, it gives them the heart and soul of mentoring, the sensitivities of mentoring. I speak really largely to the mentor. I tell them, “This book is for you.” Who could make all these magical things happen for another person? This book is for you to help guide you through. It identifies ways to start out the relationship. How to create that safety and trust, how to make it not just logical, but psychological. It gives a lot of tools. I can’t remember. There might be 39 different types of tools in the book that help you all the way through. It helps you identify how you can help a mentee, once they are getting more skillful, how to then influence others. It helps you understand there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end where you consolidate learnings. It is also a goal-driven process, and you’re flexibly goal-driven. You’re not like, “This is it. This is all we’re going to talk about.” You may well end up, after three months, taking off in another direction because of the discovery that is taking place between the two of you. It’s flexibly goal-driven.
Patrick: Wendy, first off, thank you for spending some time with me today. I really enjoy your perspective on this intentional process around mentoring. All of your experience and your journey is, it’s very inspirational in so many ways, particularly around this 20 year program that you have created, and been able to see evolve, and learn all of these really meaningful skills firsthand, and experiences firsthand, that you’ve been able to help and incorporate into so much work that you do with organizations and helping develop programs and develop successful perspective for organizations around mentorship. How does the audience find you? What is the best way, for somebody listening today, to find out more about you, to contact you, where should they go?
Wendy: The best way is to go to my website, and that is wendyaxelrodphd.com. If you just got to Wendy Axelrod, you get somebody else, wendyaxelrodphd.com.
Patrick: Perfect. We will link that in the blog post here. Wendy, again, thank you so much for spending time with me today, and for sharing your personal story, and also your perspective on successful programs, successful mentors. I really like this idea of focusing on the nurturing and the development of the mentors as the most important part, among many, of successful programs. Just a very special thank you to you for spending time with me and sharing your insights today.
Wendy: I am most grateful to have had this conversation and learned a lot. Thank you.