I have found an investment in people is the best and most important investment you can make, both in business and in life. I can draw a straight line between my success today and mentorship—both in having folks in my life willing to mentor and in my own willingness to accept such guidance and support. It’s the giving and the accepting, the coaching and willingness to be coached, that defines leadership.
HOBY does an incredible job of bringing together young people, creating the space for learning, providing access to industry leaders, and leaving the space for youth to learn from each other. When HOBY Ambassadors attend a seminar, they are primed and ready to lead, to learn and to engage. Likewise, speakers at HOBY seminars regularly come away from the experience saying “I learned just as much or more from these youth as they did from me!” This is never surprising, as the conditions have been created for both “sides” of the equation to feel and learn from each other.
Unfortunately, I fear that as our careers develop and we all “grow up,” too often “mentorship” devolves into a boss/employee model that relies too heavily on one “expert” trying to shape his or her team into the mold that they want, without leaving room for learning in both directions. The safety of a three-day leadership seminar is replaced by the cold formality of an employee review process. “What do you think?” is replaced by “Did you do what I wanted you to do?”
Mentorship works best when it is ongoing, rooted in trust, and both parties have room to be a bit vulnerable. I have worked hard to bring this understanding into the review process for the team that I lead.
I have the honor of leading LINK Strategic Partners, a full-service strategic communication and stakeholder engagement firm headquartered in Washington, DC. We now have five offices around the country, and just located a team member in Paris.
At LINK we have two formal review sessions per year; each session has multiple steps and is designed to build on (not take the place of) ongoing discussions about team and individual performance that should be happening every day and not just at review time. Every review starts with a comprehensive written Self-Assessment, as self-awareness is key to growth. Then, I provide extensive written comments for every member of my team, as do my supervisors, which are provided in advance of any discussion because surprises do not lead to productive discussions. Finally, we sit down together for an hour-long discussion, where we review the past 6 months and commit (both of us) to goals for the next 6 months.
Our Mid-Year Review sessions are not tied to any promotion or compensation discussions, as we want to provide space unburdened by those expectations. It also allows us to work together on an action plan for achieving the growth that is desired before the Annual Reviews, where such decisions are made. Additionally, our Annual Review sessions include a full team 360 Review, where all team members provide two “Glows” and two “Grows” for every other team member, including me as the President. This allows us all to learn from each other in a way that simply is not possible in a two-way discussion.
To my fellow leaders: If Reviews cause fear & dread for you or your employees, you are doing them wrong! These sessions are not punitive; rather, they are a chance to check in and align our goals for success. Yes, it takes time, lots of time, but as I said, I truly believe that investing in people is the most important investment you can make.
At LINK, we have three clear metrics for success, which form the basis of the review:
- Attitude and Approach: Positive, can-do attitude. Collaborative and entrepreneurial. Open to AND seeks out coaching without becoming defensive. Treats this as more than “just a job.”
- Versatility and Value to the Firm: Shows aptitude and willingness in doing a variety of tasks across the firm (not just those typical to the job). Volunteers for events, assignments, and meetings. Steps up to help colleagues. Always ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done. No job is too big or too small.
- Technical Ability: Performs specific job functions very well. Seeks out opportunities to become an expert in the field. Seeks and acts on feedback to improve work products—both personally and across the firm.
Every member of the team can recite these, because they are simple and powerful, and because we live by them every day.
My hope is that this reflection is helpful to you wherever you may be on your leadership journey. This feedback loop of learning from each other works in the employee/employer context, but it also applies if you are leading a HOBY seminar, part of a sports team, or working on a student group project. With clear and shared values and a mutual commitment to grow together, we can all be better mentors and mentees.
In the spirit of this feedback, I’d love to hear what you think of this approach, and I welcome OUTSTANDING any tips that you can send my way. You can reach me @DCMichaelA or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Akin is a community builder and changemaker who has consistently and successfully tackled challenges by committing to the idea that doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive. He has done so while building authentic relationships and connections locally and around the world that help people, organizations, and institutions thrive. Michael is president of LINK Strategic Partners, a national strategic communications and stakeholder engagement consulting firm proudly based in Washington, D.C.
Michael’s community activities include serving as chairman emeritus of the Greater Washington Urban League board of directors. He also serves on the boards of Destination DC, Cultural Tourism DC, Think Local First, and the American Experience Foundation, and serves as a Leadership Council member for Raise DC and on the International Advisory Council for Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership. Michael was honored as Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the DC Chamber of Commerce in 2015, and the Washington Business Journal named him a 40 Under 40 honoree in 2018.