HBS professor David A. Thomas hates the word "mentor."
In his opinion, it's as empty a buzzword as "coach." In fact, when Thomas spoke to an audience of around 100 administrative managers at Harvard University recently, he jokingly confessed that the title of his talk, "The Manager as Mentor: Effectively Managing a Diverse Workforce," had employed the word "mentor" to lure Harvard managers to the early-morning session.
What Thomas prefers, he explained to the group, is the more tongue-twisty but precise term "developmental relationship." But what exactly is a developmental relationship? It pivots on the experience that an individual has when they're engaged in their work, he said. That experience can be heavily slanted along racial or gender lines, he added, offering an example from his own life to illustrate the point.
Thomas started his teaching career at Wharton. As a newly minted twenty-nine-year-old professor there, he said, he found himself the recipient of a steady stream of practical advice from the senior faculty. Don't hang back by the blackboard when teaching your class, they told him. Stalk about the classroom; work the aisles. That shows the students that you're in charge.
Managers who manage for performance are more likely to be blindsided by events they should have foreseen and in many cases fixed.
While Thomas did not automatically disdain the attention of his more experienced colleagues, there was something missing. He was actually contending with far deeper concerns than how to gauge distance from the blackboard. He was young, the same age as some of the students he was trying to teach. He didn't believe in a lot of the teaching materials he'd been handed. People were coming up to him and saying odd things such as, "Gee, I've never had a black professor before."
One day, another of the older professors took him aside. "This person was different from me in every dimension you can imagine," said Thomas. "Including having a Southern Missouri accent. I grew up in Missouri. There's a lot of history attached to this accent."
The professor asked him, "What's it like to be up there in the classroom?"
"I thought it was a trick question," Thomas told the Harvard group with a grin. "But he persisted." They started talking about the experience Thomas was having. They found common ground.
"He then asked me, 'What are you trying to accomplish in the classroom?' I thought, 'Another trick question.' But the important note here is the way in which he created a conversation that was attuned to my experience. Which also led me to talk with him about things I hadn't talked with anybody about." Thomas's experiences had been giving him "a sense of risk and marginality," he said. By discussing it with the older professor, the two of them were able to create a better strategy for Thomas to engage in the task of teaching.
By the end of his first year, Thomas was the first first-year professor to ever be nominated for the teaching prize at Wharton.
Question All Assumptions
Managing "across differences" is one of the most difficult and important challenges any manager can face, Thomas said. Relationships across these lines, unless managers make an active effort otherwise, are less likely to be developmental. People on both sides are hesitant if not afraid to take risks for fear of inviting scrutiny. They might suppress their differences rather than discuss them openly, and the manager's feedback to the employee may be adequate but of limited value toward the employee's development
Most people manage for performance's sake rather than for development, he added. Managers who manage for performance are more likely to be blindsided by events they should have foreseen and in many cases fixed—such as the sudden departure of a star employee for greener pastures or, more commonly, a sense of discouragement that festers when someone believes, with reason, that the organization is not in his or her corner.
When one manager in the Harvard audience asserted that any employee who feels discouraged needs to speak up, Thomas answered, "As a manager, question your assumptions." While there are responsibilities on both sides, he said, it's too easy and too common for managers—faced with a sudden departure, for example—to shrug and say, "Mary never spoke to me." Managers, if they are more than caretakers at their departments, need to create conditions so that the [employees] on their staff would come to them all along and as a matter of course, to discuss the experience of their role—not just to say goodbye.
"We all need people who will advocate for us," Thomas said. If employees feel that they can't afford to fail because their boss won't stick up for them, or that the boss is less inclined to support them due to racial or gender assumptions, then it's not a work environment that inspires growth.
Managers who truly grapple with workforce diversity need to confront a lot of complexities, he said, from negative stereotypes to the suppression of differences.
Persistence And Consistency Matter
Another Harvard manager described to Thomas her own dilemma. As a new manager, she was trying to form a developmental relationship with one of the longtime staff members she had inherited. But after inviting the employee into her office to discuss that person's job, she got the feeling that the employee "really wants to be a subordinate."
Lots of people have been working for 20 years. They have very low expectations of managers as being developmental.
—David A. Thomas
"Persist," Thomas advised. Consistency is what matters. The professor at Wharton had caught him off guard, Thomas said, but he had persisted.
"We can ask people a question. We're sincere initially, but we're a little hesitant about it, don't know where we want to go, don't want to seem imposing. If the person didn't take the bait, it's too easy to not go back to them. Ask the subordinate what they're thinking about for the future. Lots of people have been working for twenty years. They have very low expectations of managers as being developmental. So when you engage them in a developmental way, don't expect that the first question, asked once and first experienced, is going to reverse twenty years of socialization.
"What we have to do as managers is figure out what our expectations are of ourselves and what we owe our employees in executing that system. And we also have to be aware of the fact that where we're most likely to give up is when we're working across differences."
Instead, he said, ask employees, "Have you had any more thoughts about our conversation?" Identify some training that you think might be good for him or her. Leave open the door for choice. As a manager, then, he said, "you're operating on the benchmark for how you want to engage people who work for you. And just because he or she doesn't accept the developmental relationship, he or she doesn't get exempted."
Managers have the responsibility for creating those conditions, Thomas added. As for their employees, he said, "I think all people want to grow. Not all people have the conditions around them that facilitate growth. ... Human nature leads people on. There's something in people that's about change and development and evolving. It can be suppressed and undermined."
His talk was part of a discussion series for University managers organized by the Harvard Administrators' Forum.