The Gift of Balance

Chip Bell

There’s a bluebird house on an oak tree six feet from our bedroom window. The same pair of bluebirds comes each spring to build, populate, and empty a nest in it. This past spring, their parenting process caused me to reflect on how instructive bluebird flying lessons could be for mentors. Bluebirds don’t just hatch eggs and depart. They act as mentors in getting a young bird from the security of the birdhouse to the serenity of flight.

Effective mentoring is especially crucial in this era of rapid change and increasing organizational complexity. Employees who don’t continue to grow will be unable to cope, adapt, and succeed. Those who wait for the next opening in a much-needed training class may be quickly left behind. In times like these, the mentor becomes a key source for real-time employee learning. But combining an in-charge role with an “in-sight” goal calls for balance — and that’s where the bluebirds come in.

Finding the Teachable Moment

How does the bluebird know when its fast-growing offspring is ready to be pushed from the nest? Bluebirds have genetically coded weaning instincts and an innate sense of timing. They watch for certain subtle signs of maturity: restlessness, wing strength, the eagerness of the infant’s lunge toward the birdhouse exit even when there’s no worm dangling from mama’s beak, and a whole bunch of other stuff they haven’t told the bird researchers.

One key to their attentiveness is the way they take different viewpoints. Bluebird parents often perch some distance away and call out to the baby bluebird, as though to gauge reaction time — how fast does Junior respond to the chirp? A parent bluebird might perch atop the birdhouse and peer down through the entrance hole. While it would obviously be easier to observe from inside, the bluebird knows that to get a true picture the comfortable and familiar close-up examination must be balanced with views from more dangerous and diverse angles and conditions.

Baby bluebirds and protégés need teachable moments. One of the chief complaints protégés make about their mentors is, “He was not on hand when I really needed him.” This key, often a brief opportunity is sometimes called “the teachable moment.” The timing of this moment is important: It’s a combination of the learner’s readiness to learn, the quickness with which learning can be applied, and the special conditions likely to foster or support learning.

So what should a mentor do to match teaching with timing? And how does the mentor demonstrate the right amount of attention? Too much attention can leave the protégé feeling smothered; too little can make her feel abandoned.

•           Stay vigilant for every opportunity to foster discovery. Whenever you communicate with the protégé, ask yourself, “Is there any earning that can be derived from this?”

•           Keep a lookout for signs of protégé apathy, boredom, or dullness, any of which may indicate a plateau in learning.

•           Ask “A” and listen for “B.” For example, ask the question, “How would you describe the challenge in your job?” but listen for the answer as if you had asked, “How would you describe your growth or learning deficit in your job?” It is far easier for protégés to talk about being challenged or not being challenged than to discuss a learning deficit.

•           From a distance, watch the protégé at work. As you watch your birdhouse from a distant railing, keep in mind that your goal is to determine whether it might be a good time to intervene as a mentor.

Support Without Rescuing

The morning the baby bluebird took that first clumsy flight from the birdhouse to the nearest bush, both parents were on hand for the occasion, proud and no doubt anxious. As the wobbly fledgling took a short, awkward burst of flight, one parent was in the tree nearby, providing comforting chirps of encouragement.

Suddenly, Taco (Bell), our black cat, came around the corner. Instantly, one of the parents flew within a few feet of Taco, distracting her long enough for the young bird to reach a limb safely out of reach. It was a beautiful display of courageous selflessness by the parent, vital and well-timed support — but the student pilot was still left to do his own flying.

Mentors provide support and encouragement as protégés work to transform shaky new skills into confident mastery. The challenges for all mentors are “When does too much support become rescuing?” and “When does too little support become a sign of callousness?” Most mentors are tempted to take help to the level of interference. Too often we say, “Let me just show you how to do that!” when we should be asking, “What do you think you should do next?”

The following assemble-it-yourself statement may help you find the right balance between helpful support and unhelpful rescue:

If I were really honest with myself, I would say I tend to offer help because

  • I don’t want to see the protégé repeat mistakes I’ve made.
  • I can’t afford too many errors in the name of learning.
  • I don’t want to see the protégé hurt, embarrassed, disappointed, or discouraged.
  • I need to show the protégé how competent I am.
  • If I don’t show the protégé how, he’ll never learn or become competent.

If there is one lesson the bluebirds can offer, it is the living illustration of the teacher’s courage to let the learner fail. Mentors, like parents, want learning to be painless, but most significant growth happens through the discomfort of grappling for skill. En route to walking and running, knees get skinned. The bluebird dived courageously at the menacing cat as the student pilot fluttered awkwardly down the backyard runway. The parent seemed to be protecting its youngster — and more: demonstrating bravery for it. Learners dare to risk when they see the teacher take risks.

Our bluebirds are empty-nesters at the moment. Their fledgling has no doubt joined the world of adult bluebirds and is out hunting tasty bugs, dodging curious cats, and perhaps serving as the flight instructor for a newer generation. Like the bluebirds, the final gift of the mentor is to allow the protégé the freedom to find his or her own way.

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