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 saw true leadership one night, in the most unlikely place – the coffee court of a local big box bookstore in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC.
The coffee court was crammed with people, a hodgepodge of college students finishing papers, professionals seeking free Wi-Fi, and even one or two people reading books or drinking coffee.
Before I sat down at an open table next to a physically fit man grading papers, 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.
It was late for a school night, past 8.30 p.m. anyway, so I ordered a decaf mocha and connected my laptop to the free Wi-Fi. Like everyone else, I was surrounded by humanity, but chose to electronically isolate myself.
Suddenly, the kind cleaning lady appears with her two daughters – one of them clearly a teenager – and a son of about five years old. She talks to the oldest girl, who translates from Spanish into English for the gentleman grading papers.
Sighing heavily and with a sense of embarrassment that can only come from a teen, she translates, “She says I have to talk with you tonight about my biology grade.”
The gentleman replies in a heavily accented, deep voice, “Excellent – I was hoping we would do Biology tonight. Please ask your mother to leave us for about 30 minutes and we will talk about it.” The teen translates and the mother leaves.
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. As a teacher of mentoring, it is rare to see a mentoring approach like this one in action.
Since my seat was only about two inches away from the gentleman’s table, it is easy to overhear their conversation. He asks how she is doing and if she is still dating a boy she had talked about during an earlier meeting. She says no, it didn’t work out.
Deftly turning this into a transition, he makes 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 comments, “it is all about the biology then…”
Still, she didn’t take the bait. Instead she informs 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 asks, ‘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 on the conversation as well.
“No,” she answers. 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 witness 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.”
“I’ll stick with misunderstood,” she adds.
Now, I hate to say it, but this conversation held me spellbound for about the next 20 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.
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. We also teach this 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 then walk off to catch their bus.
I could not resist the temptation to talk with this expert mentor. I lean across the table and introduce myself. Shaking his hand, I tell him my name and what I do.
He introduces himself as Ray and we talk a bit. I found out he was from Central Africa and was an immigrant just like the girl he was mentoring.
When I comment on his superb mentoring style, he smiles and says, “It is my duty.” Taken aback, I ask, “…your duty?”
“Yes. I was just like her 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.”
In my professional opinion, I explained that he did a tremendous job and I think she has very good prospects thanks to him. Humbly, he said that he had been taught well and he appreciated that someone noticed his efforts.
I told him that he will have a permanent place in my teaching repertoire as someone who can turn a biology session into a life lesson through role modeling of a true leader.
After we departed, I thought of how many times we often 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 has provided for her. I bet that in 10 years a Latino woman in her mid-20s will be mentoring another willing student. Maybe even in the same coffee court, all thanks to Ray.
Have you ever witnessed or experienced mentorship at its best? Please share.