Characteristics of a Mentor

“Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.”

Thanks to a blog post by Michael Hyatt, I’ve been working on my life plan.  In one sense, I’m approaching 50 and perhaps it’s time for me to decide “what I want to be when I grow up.”  In another, I’ve experienced that writing down a plan itself leads to a greater sense of commitment to the actions necessary to implement the plan successfully.  I rediscovered this sense of commitment recently on a particular topic in my life plan: mentoring.

I believe it good sense to surround ourselves with trusted advisors, coaches and mentors.  Each brings value to us in different ways.  My own framework of advisors, coaches, and mentors looks something like this:

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Characteristics of a Mentor

Passion and Discipline

“Passion starts the journey and discipline guides around the curves.”
–Kate Nasser

You remember the story of the trapped Chilean miners from last year?

Earlier this summer i saw a video clip of an interview conducted by Michael Useem, Director for the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania (and author of a number of books such as Leading Up, which I happen to have on my bookshelf), with Laurence Golborne, a Chilean civil engineer, entrepreneur, and Chile’s Mining Minister.  What I found fascinating about the interview is the simplicity with which Golborne spoke about leading a team of specialists to conduct the rescue.  In particular, I noted several key attributes he mentioned concerning leadership:

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Passion and Discipline

Improved Interview Questions Every Change Agent Must Ask

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”

–Lou Holtz

A few days ago I read a post on Harvard Business Review entitled, “Interview Questions Every Change Agent Must Ask“.  The title caught my eye, so I took a look.  Here is the essence of the three questions suggested by the authors:

  1. What does the organization want to see changed over the next 12-18 months? Within this broad category, ask sub-questions about processes, technology, and company culture.
  2. What does the organization wish to preserve over the next 12-18 months? Again, ask about processes, technology, culture. Listen carefully to the responses for each, with an ear towards sorting the back-burner issues from “what makes us special” factors. If you don’t get a clear sense between what is “back burner” versus what “makes us special,” ask for clarity.
  3. What does the organization wish to avoid at all costs over the next 12-18 months? Every organization has its sacred cows. You may be told “There are no sacred cows. You will have carte blanche to change things as you see fit.” You should interpret that statement as, “We are not yet comfortable enough with you to discuss this issue. But we appreciate that you recognize it as an issue.”

I read through these questions and reflected upon my own dealings with change.  I saw some positives, yet I also saw something missing from these questions.

The positives: Answers will identify items around desires – what the organizations wishes to change or preserve.  This recognizes those items that have been thought about consciously one way or the other.

The negatives: Questions 2 and 3 seem to be asking the same thing, essentially.  They only differ in degree between what is to be preserved versus what is a sacred cow (also to be preserved; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sacred cow). I didn’t see a question that explored the unconscious targets for change or preservation, or to identify “needs” separately from “wants.”

With this in mind, my list of questions keeps the first question in tact, and combines questions 2 and 3.  To this list I add a new third question.

  1. What does the organization want to see changed over the next 12-18 months? Within this broad category, ask sub-questions about processes, technology, and company culture.
  2. What does the organization wish to preserve or avoid at all cost over the next 12-18 months? Again, ask about processes, technology, culture. Listen carefully to the responses for each, with an ear towards sorting the back-burner issues from “what makes us special” factors and for sacred cows. If you don’t get a clear sense between what is “back burner” versus what “makes us special,” ask for clarity.  Listen for boundaries of what is not to be touched, or for what is not being said today.
  3. What key challenges does the organization face over the next 12-18 months? This is an opening to get at hot button topics that may be driving risk or underlying issues that have not been addressed.  It also separates the “want” responses for questions 1 and 2 from the “need” – what needs to be changed, and what needs to be preserved.

If you’re a change agent talking to a prospective organization about change, try these three questions.  After all, as Coach Holtz said, you won’t learn by talking; you’ll learn by asking questions.

Now that you’ve seen my list, what have I missed?

Text © 2011 Joe Williams
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Biitly

Improved Interview Questions Every Change Agent Must Ask

The End is Where We Start From

“What we call the beginning is often the end.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
–T. S. Eliot


“Houston, Mission Accomplished.”

Those were the words from the crew of Atlantis after completing its final mission, marking the end of the 30-year Space Shuttle Program.  Greeting those words were a mixture of cheers, tears, and questions about the next step in human spaceflight.  All of these are natural, when one considers the lifecycle.

Everything has a lifecycle, whether it is teams, projects, organizations, companies, even ourselves.  The natural flow of a lifecycle is in one direction, from birth, to rapid growth, maturity, dénouement, and ending.  Because it is a cycle, it repeats itself – each ending leads to a rebirth, to new growth, and so on.  “Wheels stop” ofAtlantis symbolically marks the fifth stage of the lifecycle of the Space Shuttle Program itself, that of ending. The ending stage captures communication of accomplishments and learning from the experience. Celebration, cleansing, and preparing for the renewal and rebirth to come occurs here in the fifth stage.

Each of us experiences the fifth stage differently.  For some, it is a time of somber reflection.  For others, its an eagerness to get on with the next grand challenge.  I won’t be so trite as to say (unlike others) that there is only one way and one timetable to experience the ending stage.  My own with the shuttle occurred in 1998, yet I certainly won’t begrudge those who are experiencing it now, or criticize you for “looking back” when we supposedly need to be “looking ahead” right this very minute.  There is a time and place for everyone to experience the ending stage.  For my colleagues who supported the Space Shuttle Program through the end, please take your time, savor the accomplishments you helped bring to reality, discover those nuggets of meaning from your experiences and contributions, and prepare yourself for the new challenges to come.

You’ve earned it.


Text © 2011 Joe Williams

Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The End is Where We Start From

Scientific Method and Teams

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
~Richard Feynman

It has been extremely busy the last few weeks as the team and I put the final touches on our near-term strategy for NASA’s mission operations in Houston.  With national space policy remaining in a state of flux, we announced our strategy to extend the current Integrated Mission Operations Contract. As a result, the team’s activities are winding down.  I reflected on the experience over the last 4-plus months with this team, compared to the experience I was envisioning.

As I’ve shared repeatedly here on LeadingSpace, I read.  A lot.  I’m constantly searching for insights and perspectives that are new to me and that I can incorporate into my own leadership view.  I liken it to “panning for gold” – searching for those nuggets of knowledge and expertise with proven outcomes, and weaving those into my own tapestry on actions and decisions I should consider.  Yet in my weaving I am seeking simplicity, a clear understanding about how the universe works, no matter the domain in which I’m working.  Lately my interests have gravitated towards teams, and towards this question: why do some teams fail while others are successful?

Observe, reason, and experiment.

Borrowing from my long interest in science and my background in physics, I’m approaching an answer to the question rooted in the scientific method: observe, reason, and experiment.

Observe.  Let’s start at the beginning.  All science starts with observations and the curiosity that arises from the observation.  In my role of leading teams, I want to be a successful leader and have the team achieve successful outcomes.  I’ve noticed that some teams are successful, and others are not.  Why is that? And just as important, what can I do to tip the scales in favor of success?

Reason.  Clearly, a team has to have the right set of knowledge, skills, and understanding of the problem to be solved.  Call it the right skills.  Yet have you ever worked on a team of absolutely brilliant people who don’t talk to each other?  I have, and more often than not my experience has been that those teams tend to fail.  Therefore, there is another ingredient – a capability of the team members to work together and interrelate.  Call it the right aptitude.  Yet even that is not enough, because so far we’ve gathered together smart people who are capable of working together.  The last ingredient is to do something: to bring to bear the natural talents of individuals in a diverse way that maximizes the problem-solving capabilities of the team and actually achieve measurable results.  Call it the right talents.  Part of reasoning involves making a model and making a testable prediction from that model.  Here, I claim that the likelihood of success will increase if all three factors – the right skills, the right aptitude, and the right talents – are taken into account.  The verifiable converse is that the likelihood of team success decreases if any one factor is ignored or not optimized.

Experiment.  This is what I love to do, which is why I gravitated towards experimental physics while I was in college.  My latest experiment in setting up the current team was three-fold:

  1. I requested representation from experts from key areas across our organization, and could tell by the individual mail codes that I got a diverse setting,  I also knew from first-hand experience that the individuals represented some of the best and brightest we have.
  2. Next, I consulted with our organization’s top leaders to find our how well these people interrelated.  I had some experience working in team settings with some, but not all, the members.  We eliminated a few people from the list who are not known for their team-playing capabilities.
  3. Lastly, I wanted to maximize the diversity of problem-solving talents for the ones to be selected for the team.  For that, I’m relying upon material from Kathy Kolbe and the Kolbe Wisdom, where I attempted to identify behavior characteristics of each of the twelve Kolbe problem-solving zones.  From that, I believe I got a good distribution of problem-solving talents that I intend on confirming soon by having the team take the Kolbe A Index.

To make this a true scientific exploration I still have a lot of work to do.  Clearly, one of the key indicators of validity comes from this quote from Feynman: “If there is an exception to any rule, and if it can be proved by observation, that rule is wrong.” So, I would need to work hard to find a result that invalidates the line of reasoning, or show that to the limits I can test, none exists. I would need control cases, objective measures, and repeatability over a wide set of teams.  Finally, I would need a definition of a key term: what constitutes success?  I’m still thinking about all of these, so clearly this is a work in progress.

Yet I think I’m onto something here.  What would you add?

Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Scientific Method and Teams


“You must stick to your conviction, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.”

–Denis Waitley



Recently, I caught myself making unnecessary assumptions.

Has that ever happened to you?

In my case, I was losing a team member to return to his regular job.  The person who was filling in for him while he was serving with me got a promotion, necessitating his return to his regular assignment.  Since this person’s “day job” is a key role for the organization, the work of the team is of vital importance to the organization, and the promotion opportunity for the third person is to an executive role, I assumed that our organization’s leader would make the decisions regarding transition times.

So I waited for a decision.

And waited.

Finally, the third person called me and said that our organization’s leader left it to him to work out all the details of the transition.  He and I spoke about details, reached a mutually-satisfactory outcome, and moved ahead.

At first, I was angry with myself for making the assumption I did, instead of verifying it straight away.  It would have been simple to do.  My assumption put me in a mode of inaction, waiting to be told of the decision, instead of recommending a course of action.

In one sense, I could look at this in terms of the Levels of Empowerment, where I acted initially at a low, “waiting to be told what to do” level instead of a higher, “recommend, then act” level.  However, there is something more fundamental going on here, something that reveals what I’ll call a “flaw” in my leadership approach.

That flaw is a desire to please my bosses, at least from the perspective that I see it.  Again, the basic framework is one of assumption, so I’d like to explore assumptions further.

To start, I’d like to share my mental process of working out what is going on here.  Let’s start with this: when do I think it is appropriate to make an assumption?  Here are some examples that come to mind.

  1. When we have incomplete data and need to bound a problem. One way in which an assumption can work for us is when we need to make a decision yet don’t have all the data we need.  One can bound the problem by making assumptions that define a reasonably worst case and best case.  If the outcomes are not unacceptably different, then making assumptions helps us move forward.
  2. When the cost of being wrong is minimal. What if, on a cloudy day, I assume it might rain, so I carry an umbrella.  It turns out not to rain, meaning I’m trudging my umbrella with me all day.  Is that a big deal, in the grand scheme of things?  Of course not.

In the situation I relayed at the start of this post, the cost of being wrong turned out to be minimal.

In one sense, I was satisfied, and in another, I was not.  The examination felt like rationalization, without getting to a root cause.  Additionally, I may be confusing assumption with inference.

What clued me in on the latter topic was a recent blog post by my friend, Gwyn Teatro, entitled, “Climbing the Ladder of Inference.”  Gywn shares a story in which she made an assumption, looked at the outcome, and examined it using the Ladder of Inference developed by Chris Argyris.  Gwyn’s story tells me that I have some further exploration to do on this topic, one that drills into my fundamental beliefs.  I haven’t done that yet, which is why this post seems unfinished and why it has been nearly two weeks since my last post.  Yet in putting this post to paper (so to speak) even in its unresolved state, I’m making a commitment to work on this self-examination, to identify underlying beliefs so that I can continue to improve as a leader.



Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto




Good things happen when you get your priorities straight.
–Scott Caan

Last week during Congressional testimony, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was quizzed repeatedly on “the agency’s priorities in an era when the agency’s fiscal resources may be mismatched to its plans.”

Also last week, the team and I gave a briefing to our senior leaders, in which we addressed the relative priorities of objectives in our strategic plan.

The topic of priorities is a major theme in the mentoring sessions I’m conducting with one of my young protégés at NASA.

And it has been over 10 days since I last posted to Leading Space.

Clearly, my world has revolved around priorities recently.  I’ve been wrestling with priorities, and have watched others near me do the same.  I found that when I am “deep in the weeds,” it is often hard to sort through all the priorities and make meaningful progress.  What is one to do when confronted with a question of priorities?

1. Seek alignment with core values. With the team’s strategic planning task, I have constantly referred back to our organization’s guiding principles for insight.  The Foundations of Mission Operations are a powerful framework for assessing priorities within my organization: if it doesn’t somehow relate directly to one of the seven core values, it likely is not a high priority.

2. Seek feedback. When in doubt, ask a trusted advisor, leader, or sounding board.  I find I am constantly doing this, whether at work or at home.  Sometimes the process of talking through priorities leads to that “aha” moment when insight kicks in and the choices become obvious.

3. Dive in! Sometime, priorities don’t matter – it’s getting things done and showing measurable results that matter.

Meanwhile, I’m getting back to my priorities.


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto