January 2017 is Local Government Mentor Month! All month long, we’ll be learning from people about how to be an effective mentor (as well as celebrating the people who have mentored us). Scot Simpson, City Administrator of City of River Falls breaks it down in this installment.
Mentoring comes in many forms. Internships happen to be pretty effective form in my experience. I had a number of mentors, both personal and professional, but the mentoring that I received during formal internships really were the most influential mentoring experiences in my professional life.
Nearly twenty years later, I still can still feel Keith Swartz (Budget Manager, Waukesha County, WI) reading that Council memo over my shoulder and suggesting a few “modifications” that would improve its clarity. I often reflect on the “conversations” Bob Boldt (City Engineer – Janesville, WI) and Steve Sheiffer (now City Manager- Whitefish Bay, WI) had when they were not pleased with the way a project responsibility of mine was progressing because they knew I could do better.
Sayings, lessons, tactics, passion, joy, and vigilance are a few of the things my internships have added to the person and leader I am today.
Here are a few of the many things that stuck with me long after my internship was over:
- “Why say it with 20 words when you can say it with 10.”
- “Did you really mean expenses ‘will be reduced’ or did you mean ‘may be reduced’ if this action is taken by the Board?”
- “Go home Scot. The work will be here tomorrow.”
- The best way to learn is to have responsibility without authority.
- The key to transitioning to the Administrator is learning how to say no the right way. It is easy to say yes.
- Managing by walking/driving/riding/biking around is key tool for City Managers.
- “The best way to get change in the Police Department is to convince the Police Chief the change is his/her idea.”
- If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
My approach to mentoring is to help people understand that I don’t know everything, a little chaos is natural, and there is no one management philosophy that guides all my actions. That isn’t always a comforting thought for people looking to you for guidance, but I think it may just be the kind of breathing room that allows people to take chances, ask a lot of “why?” questions and chart their own leadership philosophy. Just seeing a mentor in action is not enough. The mentee has to have the opportunity to understand why you did it the way you did and why you considered but didn’t do it other ways.
In order to give people chances to ask “why?”, I also try to just spend time with interns in a number of settings (something I can always improve on). Once you commit to hosting an intern, you have to be deliberate in making that time. Mentoring takes a lot of contact time and not just asking for project updates.
I have opportunities to speak to colleagues in support of adding internship opportunities to their organizations. I start those presentations by asking audience members to stand up (I have been told all presentations need an opener). Once everyone was standing I ask those who have had an internship that helped them in the profession to remain standing. Typically, 70 percent or more of those in the crowd remain standing. Then I ask those who have hosted an intern to remain standing. Let’s just say that so many people sitting down so quickly makes a lot of noise.
Aside from the chance to get the audiences blood flowing, the opening tactic allows a pretty significant statement to be made without me saying anything.
I mentor because I owe it to pass along the kindness and effort my mentors provided me, because it provides myself and my organization a blast of energy and excitement, and because it is fun to see people grow and progress as professionals.
I also mentor because I don’t want to be that guy who stands up when asked if he had an internship that helped them in his career but has to sit down when asked if they have mentored anyone in the profession.