Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reflection, Mastery & Mentoring

Being a parent is an interesting experience, it gives you a great deal to think about! But first I want to define that word "mastery" so that we're all on the same page: my use of the word mastery is definitely a lower case use. I don't mean mastery in a "masters of the universe" way, not in an ego driven way, rather I use it in a lower case, quiet satisfaction way. Mastery to me means a quiet understanding that in a particular little subject area you are on top of things. It doesn't mean you've stopped learning, it simply means that you pretty well "get it", whatever "it" is.
A number of years ago my son, then about 16 or 17 had his first public gig with a small band at a well known Melbourne jazz joint. I was sitting at the bar along with a friend who is a very well known jazz and latin musician. She was also my son's teacher. The band were playing and my son launched into a long solo. A friend of my friend walked in, he was also a well known muso, he said to my friend, "who's that guy? He's on fire." My friend said "yeah, he's a student of mine" and grinned.
Meanwhile I was sitting there gob-smacked. As a parent you nurture, support, challenge, and help your kids to learn. But as I was discovering there is a revelatory moment. I was seeing my son for the first time as a truly and utterly separate entity who was, at that moment, in absolute mastery of his sphere. He was knocking the house down with the quality of his improvisation, he really was on fire. I understood for the first time (slow maybe) that here he was demonstrating mastery of something which was beyond and above my scant knowledge on the subject. That really made me think as a parent - it was a new moment, and a good one.
Yesterday I had a different parental moment. My daughter and I were doing what most pilots do from time to time - shooting a few circuits. Approach and landing account for an uncommonly large proportion of aircraft accidents and it's an area that pilots practice a lot, hence shooting a few circuits. I was just ballast, my daughter was the pilot.
She was flying well, in the groove and coping well with the thermally conditions. If you are flying well you get into a really good rhythm flying circuits, it all just flows. That's where she was.
After an hour she decided that this one would be the last circuit. It was starting to get really bumpy and hot. As we slid down final we flew into a great big bubbly thermal. Even with the throttle closed and full flaps we were above glide slope. She grinned at me and said "big thermal". As we got closer to the ground I said, without thinking "you'll sink when you come out of the other side". I have no idea where that thought came from, just one of those snippets that you "know" through having experienced it so many times.
We were by now very close to the ground and at that moment we flew out of the lift and, lo and behold, we sank like a stone. From the left seat there was an involuntary "oh", she responded well, moving aggressively into the flare and using a bit of throttle, nevertheless, the landing was a bit firm. I couldn't help thinking that if she had instinctively known, as I did, that we were going to get big sink out of the other end of the lift, then she would have reacted a little more instinctively. She reacted well but if she had been a few micro seconds sooner the landing would have been up to her usual perfect standard.
This got me thinking about what gives rise to mastery and why it's important. The key is experience and what you do with experience. David Kolb proposed a model of learning and a set of learning styles. You can read about it here. The important thing about Kolb's model is that it proposes a theory about what you need to do with an experience to turn it into learning. There are four steps: Concrete Experience, Abstract Conceptualisation, Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation. These steps are closely aligned to 4 learning styles: Diverger, Assimilator, Converger and Accommodator. It is a process, such as that proposed by Kolb, that turns a simple experience, through a process of conceptualisation and reflection into something that we can add to our kit bag as new knowledge that will affect how we act "next time". This is what true learning is about. Whether it's in the midst of a negotiation for a multi-million dollar contract where you are using this process to understand the people across the table, or it's my daughter thinking about the sink after the lift and therefore what she would do next time.
A number of years ago I was working with an organisation that was in strife, they were dysfunctional and disconnected from their environment. The members of that organisation were extremely intelligent and very well qualified but they weren't cutting it and they had finally realised that. One of the early activities that we ran was a workshop for the majority of the staff of the organisation in the ballroom of a large city hotel. We asked each person in the room to complete the Kolb learning style inventory. Then we used chalk to draw a grid on the floor - one quadrant for each style - just like the inventory. Then we said to the 40 or so people in the room: "go and stand on the grid where you were placed by the inventory". The only people standing in the Accommodator section of the grid were me and one of the members of the organisation - he was seen as an outsider. Almost everyone was crowded into the Assimilator part of the grid - in fact there was barely enough room for all of them. I simply said to them: "Start talking - one at a time, what are you thinking?". It was a very powerful experience. The first person addressed the person standing alongside me and said "we always knew you were different, what are you doing there?". Then they began to talk about why the organisation was like it was. There was nobody to act, it was all quiet reflection and proposing ways to act but never any action. That was the start of massive change in that organisation driven by awareness of all sorts of issues.
Here lies also the reason why an MBA is not the answer to the world's woes. If you are a good learner, and you develop mastery of an area it gives you the capacity to deliver that gift to others, through being a mentor. Book learning doesn't cut it in this sphere. Instead it is the capacity to learn from experience, to draw the book learning and the other experiences of the past together, to make sense of a situation and to cast effective action. To be an effective mentor you must be an effective learner.
I would argue that mentorship also requires that you are comfortable in your own skin. That your ego must be at peace and must not intrude. Mentorship is a zen experience. It comes along in lots of ways, by modelling behaviour, by helping others to reflect on experiences, by challenging others to explore alternative perspectives, to experiment with different approaches, to submerge their anxieties.
The current cult of Management and Leadership - both capital letter words in this context - misses out on the notion of mentorship, the quiet leadership of wisdom and experience. Mentorship is aimed at supporting others to learn and excel. It derives from personal mastery and continued learning. In my view it's the key behaviour that's sadly missing in our ego-driven and often pathological organisations.

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