The Best Mentorships and Performance Conversations Don’t Feel Like Burdens

The Best Mentorships and Performance Conversations Don’t Feel Like Burdens

Whitnie Low Narcisse, head of advisory programs at First Round Capital, has run three rounds of mentorships since launching the venture firm’s mentoring program in 2016, bringing together 100 mentor-mentee pairs. First Round Review passes along some of the key lessons Narcisse has learned about how to cultivate a successful mentorship. Her first rule? Don’t call it a “mentorship”:

A little ironic for an article all about mentorship, but nearly all of the mentors we spoke to identified use of the word as the number one reason they were dissuaded or disinclined to talk to someone. It carries some negative connotations with it: it’s a time suck, it implies a very close relationship with someone you may barely know, it sounds like a long-term commitment. Direct asks like, “Will you mentor me?” are a universal turn off. …

To this point, if you’re a mentee sending an ask, you want to be very clear and explicit about why you targeted this person. Do enough homework to briefly explain why you’re looking for guidance relevant to their experience. That way, you don’t have to use the word ‘mentor.’ Instead, you’re inviting them to apply their considerable knowledge on something they’ll find intellectually engaging and impactful. That’s how people want to feel — not that they’re taking on an additional obligation.

Narcisse recommends an approach to mentorship that is formal yet flexible. Mentors and mentees should commit to a series of regularly scheduled meetings, mentees should prepare a focused agenda for each meeting, and the pair should set specific goals together and measure progress—but the schedule shouldn’t be too rigid, meetings shouldn’t feel like lectures or question-and-answer sessions, and goal-setting doesn’t mean homework. Most importantly, mentorship shouldn’t be a one-way street.

Much of Narcisse’s advice can also apply to the challenge of asking someone in a more senior position in your company, especially your manager, for help and feedback in the context of performance management.

In the conventional model, companies mandate one or two formal performance reviews a year, where a manager is expected to give their employee feedback and advice. These mandatory conversations ensure that some point of contact exists between managers and their team members, but does not guarantee that anyone will be enthusiastic about them. That’s why First Round’s experience with mentorships resonates with the research we’ve done at CEB, now Gartner, on performance management.

Narcisse’s emphasis on emotional intelligence, specificity, and making sure that both mentors and mentees benefit from the relationship are aimed at solving common problems in mentorship that also typically occur in performance management conversations: The manager doesn’t know how to give feedback, or the employee doesn’t know how to ask for it. Unless organizations structure performance conversations and train both parties to overcome these challenges, it often falls to employees to get their managers engaged and invested enough to give feedback that is actually useful to the employee.

Our 2017 CHRO Agenda Poll found that one of HR leaders’ key priorities for this year is to transition from episodic to continuous performance management. To make that change effectively, organizations may need to reform the nature of these conversations and the manager-employee relationship; otherwise, they could just be subjecting employees to more frequent high-pressure conversations and forcing managers to devote more of their precious time to tedious performance reviews.

(CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read the full findings of the CHRO Agenda Poll here.)

Managers’ resistance to spending even more time on a process that they already find to be a chore impedes this shift to what can actually be a much more effective performance management process. Providing feedback on an ongoing or continuous basis rather than the traditional episodic model can improve employee performance by 12 percent, our research has found. We have identified several steps organizations can take to make the performance management process easier and more helpful for managers and employees alike, many of which resonate with Narcisse’s guidelines for effective mentorships:

  • Train for clear expectations: Providing managers and employees with the same training can improve their ability to conduct quality performance conversations by ensuring that they are on the same page about what to expect from these conversations. Completing the same training as their managers empowers employees to hold them accountable for meeting those expectations (and vice-versa).
  • Measure conversation quality: Measure the effectiveness of managers by the outcome and quality of their performance conversations, not just how often they take place. Many organizations hold managers accountable for performance management activities only with metrics that gauge the frequency of these activities, but this drives managers to focus on quantity over quality. Measuring outcomes instead gives managers and employees an incentive to hold as many conversations as they need to ensure the employee is on the right track, rather than an arbitrary number.
  • Create a performance management ecosystem: Go beyond the manager. They don’t need to be an employee’s only source of evaluation or feedback. Foster an ecosystem of feedback and coaching by supplementing performance management with input from sources beyond the manager, especially their peers.

(CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can check out our full set of tips for reforming performance management here.)