Adult learning and child learning are different when it comes to focus. Children are patient with delayed application and the promise that “someday you’ll find this helpful.” Adults question the worth of knowing the ingredients of the pie at the king’s banquet. As adults, we want real-time relevance and immediate application. And, if the tie to usefulness is unclear or absent, our motivation drops and our attention drifts.

Proper protégé motivation is vital to protégé learning. Motivation is surfaced in part by linking what is being learned with a grander purpose. Call it “competence with a cause,” to suggest that as learners we need the “why” as much as we need the “how.” We want our pursuit to be in the direction of some desirable end-point, as Peter Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline: “Shared vision is vital for the learning organization because it provides focus and energy for learning. Innovative learning occurs only when people are striving to accomplish something that matters deeply to them.” (21)

Focusing on Purpose

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is known for extraordinary elegance and world-class customer service. Winner of the 1992 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, it achieved distinction not just through great quality but consistently great quality — across all hotels and all properties. A key part of the Ritz-Carlton consistency comes through a clear vision: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Every employee from general manager to housekeeper is clear on that vision as well as its specific implications for their role.

As clear and powerful as their vision is — and the twenty customer-service practices that accompany it — it is useless unless it is kept alive and fresh. It becomes no more than a clever billfold-sized, tri-fold, laminated card unless it serves as the grounding and touchstone for every action and all decision. When Ritz-Carlton employees do “line-up,” a ten-minute stand-up meeting in every department at every shift change; it includes an articulation of “what we learned today that would impact the guests’ experience tomorrow.” Learning is tied to purpose. Every new employee orientation begins with the vision and values, not with policies and procedures.

Nordstrom uses its employee empowerment policy — “Use your good judgment in all situations” — as the basis for many of their learning programs. “Learning at Nordstrom,” says one department manager at their flagship store in downtown Seattle, “is all aimed at helping associates think like owners. Good judgment comes from good know-how.” Springfield ReManufacturing goes a step further. Employees are taught business literacy skills. “We want our employees to know the skills needed to run their jobs just like it was their own business. If they don’t know the impact of their everyday decisions on the profitability of the business, how can we expect them to not be wasteful or inefficient?” says CEO Jack Stack. (20)

“Why” before “What” and “How”

Mentoring with focus means taking time to help link emerging acumen with an exciting aim. It might not be the global vision of the corporation, like the forward-thinking Ritz-Carlton, but rather some short-term objective of the unit. Adult learning guru Fredric Margolis says, “When giving learning direction, always let the ‘why’ come before the ‘what’ or the ‘how.’” The crux of Margolis’s point is that learners can psychologically and emotionally hear the “what” or “how” in a fundamentally different way if it is preceded by the rationale.

The rationale is always stated from the protégé’s perspective, not the mentor’s, or the unit’s, or the organizations. Here is the difference:

From the Organization’s Perspective: “When interviewing someone for a job, you may or may not choose to reveal certain things about yourself or the organization. At Acme, we believe you should know in advance what you will reveal before you begin an interview. In a moment I will provide you an opportunity to practice revealing information.”

From the Protégé’s Perspective: “When interviewing someone for a job, you may or may not choose to reveal certain things about yourself or the organization. What is important is that you feel comfortable and competent in revealing certain information to the person being interviewed. This feeling comes with experience. The more we risk, the better we become at taking risks. In a moment you will have the opportunity to practice revealing information.”

The rationale should communicate a personal reason for learning as well as a professional reason. The reason presented should be one with which the protégé can identify, one that makes logical as well as emotional sense. It should not be a justification by the mentor in terms of the needs of the unit or the organization.

Grounding Summaries with Substance

Grounding is all about creating a foundation for learning. Grounding lends a bolstering sturdiness to new skills or knowledge. Think of the learning rationale as providing not only direction but roots as well. Building a foundation is by definition an initial act. However, foundations only support when they are maintained. An effective mentor will frequently circle back to the rationale and “help the protégé touch the touchstone.” One way to do this is with a summary statement, such as “Overall, this skill is vital to what we are working to accomplish because. . . .” Or you reinforce the foundation with a question: “Tell me again the reason this learning is important?”

Adult learners need a sense of purpose to engage their enthusiasm. Wise mentors can bolster purposeful learning by using vision, objectives, and rationale to ensure growth has both direction (focus) and grounding (foundation). It is not the words we speak it is the strategy employed to elevate learning from simply a task to be accomplished to that of a grander cause and a nobler endeavor.

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