Have you ever hesitated to reach out to a boss or a mentor and ask for their time – maybe to seek out advice for a current challenge?
Do you feel like a burden when you do?
What about encountering distracted, seemingly aloof communication from a boss or mentor? Though likely unintentional, even the smallest signals can message that we are distracting our boss or mentor from more important things, or that we are not someone on their short list of people worth their time.
I have always struggled with mentorship for these exact reasons. I fear I may be seen as a distraction or even a burden by the leaders I respect and seek out advice from.
So, this is something I’ve aimed to work on over the last year. I have been exploring and practicing ways that I can more effectively, and especially efficiently, be a good mentee – and as a result hopefully a good mentor to others.
This all came to a point of clarity for me when I recently received a Christmas card from a mentee of mine, one I respect deeply. In his card, he wrote, “…I’ve always struggled to seek out mentorship and advice from others. For the longest time, and still to this day, I took my upbringing and ‘solo-route’ as a chip on my shoulder and something I should keep on forcing on myself. You made it easy to reach out and ask for advice. I’ll never forget the conversations we have had…”
I think it is all about our time and approachability. These are two important tools available to every leader – whether in the role as boss, mentor, colleague, or even parent – regardless of circumstances that can significantly influence our relationships with those around us and improve our positive, lasting impact on them. We must not underestimate the impact of these tools on how we influence, lead, and develop others.
The Benefits of Our Time & Approachability
We may not inherently view our time and approachability as tools available to lead and develop others. But these two variables predicate anything we actually do when interacting with someone. Before we can think about how we will behave in a moment to make it impactful, we must create that moment using our time and approachability.
Particularly, these two tools provide four key benefits. They cultivate:
- Belonging: It shows others (direct reports, employees, mentees, even our children) that we genuinely care – about them personally and their issue at hand.
- A sense of value: We reinforce their belief that “I’m worth it,” authorizing them to reach out and seek our support.
- Space for opportunity: Not only do we create the physical time and space for development, but we create psychologically safe space for them. Using our time and approachability, we encourage space for sincere openness, vulnerability, and meaningful conversation.
- A feeling of potential: We support self-efficacy in them. We help foster beliefs that “I can and I want to commit to getting better or to address this issue.”
Really, I simply see our time and approachability as tools to help make the world better – or at least someone else’s world better.
Our Time as a Tool
Bob Goff, author of a personal favorite book of mine Love Does, claims that there is “something beautiful about being available to others.” He says that he is really picky about what he says but is fully generous with his time. It just requires him to be efficient in his availability and the way he loves people.
When we think of our time, what is most important in life and our work? What will matter most in our legacy? How can we use generosity with our time to invest into and develop others? Howe can this help us achieve maximized time spent in quadrant II (important-not urgent) of the time matrix?
For me, using my time (and being generous yet efficient with it) to invest in and connect with others is an enduring priority. In action, however, this means three things.
First, I am always available and people have complete access to me. In every conversation with a junior leader, colleague, or mentee, I include comments like, “let me know if you’d like to schedule a time to sit down and talk about this,” “I will always give you my time for whatever you want or need; just let me know,” or “please reach out and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” I give out my cell phone number and email freely to those I meet and work with. I use as many small and large signals I can to message I am willing to give others my time.
Second, to use my time, I require people to schedule a meeting with me on my calendar (unless it is a perceived crisis). This helps me be efficient with my time and still balance my routine work requirements (which are important too). So, when people reach out to meet with me, based on the issue at hand, I aim to schedule them on my calendar within the next two weeks; I aim for within a week for work-related and within two weeks for mentorship. This enables me to block off appropriate time to give that person my undistracted time, which is essential for me. Other ways I use my time efficiently for others, especially as a mentor, is leveraging virtual-based mentorship groups (chat and video calls) and reaching out to a few long-distance mentees per week via email to check in with them.
Finally, when we do meet, I keep it focused on their agenda. I start with a few check-in questions about life updates. But I deliberately transition to putting the ball in their court by asking, “so, what’s on your mind?” Then, as that particular topic culminates, I like to create opportunity for other relevant conversation by asking, “what else is going on?” Both questions keep the meeting focused on them (so I don’t hijack it to talk about myself or my agenda), let them guide the conversation, and creates opportunity for safety and vulnerability.
Approachability as a Tool
Being generous with our time alone is insufficient. We must be approachable before, during, and after conversations as well. We all may think we are approachable but could be unaware of unintentional or covert obstacles we put up around us that prevent, or at least delay, people from seeking our time or help. Even failing to show the slightest amount of excitement to talk to the other person may send major signals to them that you are not interested in this conversation, which could be devastating for them.
Approachability as a leader or mentor means two things: Being personable and bringing a level of energy to the conversation.
Being personable with others can be as simple as knowing and using the person’s first name (often a bigger challenge for the military) or knowing important aspects of that person’s life. That can be things like their family and their names, recent life updates, recent work successes or progress, and hobbies. Remember to ask about these routinely too.
And bringing energy to a conversation does not require charisma (good news for introverted types like me). It can be as simple as things like being fully present and not distracted when you’re meeting with them. I prefer to have a “meeting” space in my office when I can, which is separate from my computer and desk. I keep my phone on my desk and move away from all distractions so I can fully invest in the discussion. Commit to active, encouraging listening and be intentional about your body language throughout. Energy can also be small comments that send big signals like:
- “I look forward to talking soon,” when you schedule a time to meet.
- “It’s so great to see you; welcome,” when you link up to talk.
- “I really appreciated our conversation; thanks for reaching out and making time to meet with me,” at the conclusion of the meeting.
- And even sending the person a text message or email after the meeting sharing some meaningful reflections that you pulled out of the meeting as well.
I wish to end by sharing that I have learned much of this through trial and error…and spending a lot of time not doing it well. I write this for me, first and foremost, as a means of personal accountability and clarity. It is so easy to overlook these tools and the signals we send, even unintentional negative ones. I always need to improve in my availability to others, my approachability, and consistency in all of it. I hope that this piece can encourage you to do the same as well. Take care and lead well.
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