My profession is teaching people about leadership. As a result, I am always on the lookout to see when leadership is truly practiced, yet this practice goes unheeded and unnoticed to the outside world. I had a chance to see true leadership one night, in the most unlikely place – the coffee court of a local big box book store in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC.
You know those coffee courts – where everyone is crammed in to a community of college students finishing papers, professionals seeking free Wi-Fi, and even one or two people reading books or drinking coffee.
I saw an open table, next to a very physically fit gentleman, who looked like a teacher (he was grading papers anyway).
Right before I sat down, the cleaning lady, one of the sometime faceless people who pick up after us, jumped in front of me, cleaned and wiped down my table, then pulled my chair out for me.
‘Thank you,’ I said as I sat down and she nodded with a big smile.
It was what I would consider late for a school night, past 8.30PM, so I ordered a decaf mocha and then began to see if my computer would link up with the free Wi-Fi. Like everyone else, I was surrounded by humanity, but chose to electronically isolate myself.
It was then that the kind cleaning lady showed up with, who appeared to be, her two daughters – one of them clearly a teenager – and a son of about five years old.
The lady was talking to the oldest girl, who began translating from Spanish into English for the gentleman who was sitting behind me.
Sighing heavily and with a sense of embarrassment that can only come from a teen, she translated, “She says I have to talk with you tonight about my Biology Grade.”
The Gentleman replied in a heavily accented, deep voice, “Excellent – I was hoping we would do Biology tonight. Please ask your Mother to leave us for about thirty minutes and we will talk about it.” The teen translated and the mother left.
It was clear to me that this gentleman was her mentor and since I teach mentoring, I thought I would pay a little attention to see how this went. Since my seat was about two inches away from the mentor’s table, it was easy to overhear the conversation.
At CCL, we teach people that good mentors build a relationship, then assess where the mentoree is, challenge them, provide support, and focus on results. Rarely do we get to see an approach like this in action like I got to see that evening.
He began by asking how she was doing and if she was still dating a boy she had talked about during an earlier meeting. She said no, it didn’t work out.
Deftly turning this into a transition, he made a comment about the role chemistry plays in relationships.
She didn’t take the bait – she said that it was more about how guys think and girls think that makes the difference.
So, he said, “it is all about the biology then…”
Still, she didn’t take the bait. Instead she informed him of her low biology grade and that if she did not do better next time, she would be kicked out of the honors class.
Having made his assessment of where she was, and building on a relationship that had obviously had many of these conversations, he asked, ‘is that what you want?’
When I teach we call this both an assessment and a challenging question – it demands an answer, yet poses a focus of the conversation as well.
“No,” she answered. She wanted to do better.
“I want you to do better too – you owe it to yourself and your family. We have worked too hard for too many weeks not to get this right. What do you think we need to do to get on the right track?”
Again, I witnessed a great mentoring technique – providing support while allowing her to take the question and provide the answer, owning it in the same space.
“I think I need to spend more time here and focus better on this stupid biology.”
“Yes, I agree – and would use a different term than stupid – how about difficult or misunderstood.”
“OK, she said, I’ll stick with misunderstood.”
Now, I hate to say it, but this conversation absolutely held me spell bound for about the next twenty minutes. They got right into the topic and his active listening, probing questions, support, and light hearted approach to a tough topic; he was able to get her to see some very difficult concepts.
This was truly mentoring at its best – the presence of the mentor fueling the mentoree’s burning desire to learn. He fed her information like feeding wood to a fire. They were so involved in the conversation over cells and how they were made they failed to notice that her mother had been waiting over 15 minutes at another table for them to finish.
The mother finally walked over and apparently told her daughter they had to leave or they would miss their bus. She translated for her mother about how proud she was of her daughter and of how the mentor was helping her daughter become a better student and a better person.
The Mentor just smiled and said in his heavily accented English, it was the least he could do.
Then, like all good mentors, he focused on results – he reminded her of her test the next week and the problems to study. He then asked her to translate what he just said for her mother. I thought that this is a lesson we also teach in class to mentors – make sure the immediate managers know the development goals of the mentoree and what they need to do to be successful.
The Mother, daughter, and her siblings walked off into the bookstore and out to catch their bus.
I could not resist the temptation to talk with this expert mentor. I leaned across the table and introduced myself. Shaking his hand, I told him my name and what I did.
“Ray,” he said. We talked a bit and I found out he was from Central Africa and was an immigrant just like the girl he was mentoring.
I commented on his superb mentoring style – he just smiled and said ‘it is my duty.’
Caught unawares, I stammered, “…your duty?”
“Yes. I was just t like her once – when I first came to this country. Then a mentor took me under his wing and taught me. I owe it to my mentor to be as good as he was. Sometimes it is the only hope an immigrant has to be successful. I really hope it works for her.”
I replied that in my professional opinion, he did a tremendous job and I think she has very good prospects thanks to him.
Very humbly he said that he had been taught well and he appreciate that someone noticed his efforts.
I replied that I think he will have a permanent place in my teaching repertoire as someone who can turn a biology session into a life lesson through his role modeling of a true leader.
We left each other after coffee and I began thinking of how many times we see leadership in action and we don’t stop to say thanks or provide feedback. That simple act may sustain a difficult relationship or even reinforce someone’s desire to take on the rough role of mentor or leader. What a great gift he was providing for her. I can pretty sure bet that in ten years I would not be surprised to see a Latino woman in her mid Twenties mentoring another willing student.
Ray the Mentor – the gentleman who helped me learn the truths about mentorship.