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This article was published on October 20, 2014

    Teach them to fish: 5 leadership lessons for mentoring employees

    Teach them to fish: 5 leadership lessons for mentoring employees
    David Hassell
    Story by

    David Hassell

    David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - including continuous employee feedback, objective tracking (OKRs), pulse surveys, and peer recognition. Named "The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley" by Forbes Magazine, David has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Wired, Fast Company, and the Financial Post. You can learn more about 15Five and David Hassell at www.15five.com.

    David Hassell is the CEO of 15Five. This post originally appeared on the 15Five blog.

    To succeed as an entrepreneur you must constantly overcome countless factors that are beyond your control; market changes, employee attrition and tech/product issues. You have to keep moving quickly towards execution or competitors will swallow you whole.

    But you can’t do it all by yourself. You need the support of employees who will require mentoring to reach a level of competency where they can work independently. In an outcome-focused business with scarce resources, it is tempting to give only as much direction as necessary to get results.

    Here are five ways to go a little further and actually cultivate employees who will eventually work autonomously, and experience enough satisfaction to stay at your company for years to come.

    1. Let people fail

    My 10-month-old son has been working hard to push himself up and learn how to crawl. It has been challenging to allow him to fall, but if I protect him every time he will never understand the lesson or build the muscle memory needed to walk.

    You have to be willing to let people fail, since we learn through our mistakes more than successes. Give people a wide enough berth to explore challenges in a situation that is non-critical.

    Allow employees to work on their edge at a task that is just out of their comfort zone. Let them sit in discomfort for awhile and stretch the boundaries of what they think they are capable of. There is nothing quite as rewarding as the epiphany of figuring something out for yourself.

    2. Get ‘em on the court

    One of my favorite sports analogies is the difference between being on the court versus being in the stands. Most of what people talk about in terms of learning, is accumulating understanding from the stands.

    Reading every book on the topic of tennis might allow you to talk about the theory of various strokes, the benefits of using a graphite racket, or understanding the tensile strength of the strings. But what good is that if you don’t know how to actually hit the ball? True knowledge is embodied in the ability to act upon a situation effectively.

    As employees grow, they often need to be trained, whether by someone at your company or through an outside course. Let them get on the court quickly following a training to perform what they learned or it will be lost.

    3. Don’t become trapped by perfectionism

    Different tasks have different levels of importance. When a non-mission critical task arises, it is worth saying,”I know that I can perform this at 100 percent, but if I delegate it out and it is performed at 80 percent that will be sufficient.”

    Give it to someone else as a learning opportunity and then have a conversation about performance. Then provide people with great feedback so they can improve the next time, and include the reasons why you would like it performed that way.

    You will undergo a temporary period where mistakes are made and standards are compromised a bit. But its not as long as you think it will be, and the long-term rewards outweigh the short-term sacrifice.

    4. Delegate

    If you want something done right, do it yourself. But who has time for that?

    A lot of business owners find it difficult to delegate because they demand excellence and have a particular way that they want things accomplished.

    Someone new may get things done by using a different approach with a lower standard, or one that is equally or more effective. Early on you might say that you can’t trust the person and just do it yourself. If you don’t grant trust through delegation, you will never grow employees from subpar to high performance.

    Provide feedback, let them iterate and eventually they will outperform you.

    5. Check in

    A surefire way to save time and develop trust is to ask questions on a regular basis:

    • Are there any obstacles you are facing and can I help?
    • Looking back on the week, is there anything that could have gone better?
    • What’s an action you can take next week to improve your overall performance?
    • What would you like to learn that could help you in your role?

    When you respond with feedback that helps employees grow, you encourage greater openness and transparency. You can see where their challenges lie and help them help themselves to succeed.

    With barely enough time to get your own tasks completed, you may be tempted to just let challenged employees figure things out for themselves. But employees whither in overly stressful and unsupportive environments. Their performance will suffer or they will seek employment elsewhere. Balance the space you give them with letting them know that you are available when they get stuck.

    Find a way to mentor employees yourself, or leverage others at the company who have knowledge to impart. Pretty soon you will have a staff that is equipped to handle new tasks and responsibilities with confidence. They can train others as they step into more advanced roles and help up-level your entire organization.

    How do you support employees to grow within your company? Do you struggle with finding the time to mentor them?

    Read next:Why employee management is out of control

    Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Mel-nik