I grew up on a farm. One of my chores in junior and senior high was milking a cow early morning and late afternoon. It was our family’s source for milk, butter and cheese. Cow milking today involves machines and computers. Cow milking—the old fashioned way—involved an edgy cow, a three legged stool and a stainless steel milk pale to catch the milk squeezed from an udder.
I was not a very patient teenager. I was always in a big hurry to get the boring chore over with so I could shoot hoops before going to school or fish before going to supper. But, like mentoring, you cannot be successful doing “drive-by cow milking.”
You had to talk nice to the cow, place fresh food in the trough, and let the cow settle down in the milking stall having just come into the tight space from the wide open fields. It took patience and a willingness to work with the cow, not on the cow. If the cow needed to shift around to avoid a horsefly or to lick her back with her rough tongue, the milker had to be willing to pick up stool and pail and back way until the cow was ready to resume. Done too quickly, your pail was likely kicked over dumping out all the fresh milk. Done well, you went home with rich milk that could help feed a growing family.
Now, be careful here! This cow-milking metaphor is not aimed at saying protégés are cows. It is designed to say that in today’s “time’s up” work world, mentors can be impatient thus rendering the mentoring relationship ineffective. It is meant to communicate that mentoring means starting where the protégé is, not where the mentor wants him or her to be. Mentor and protégé must focus on the quality of the process not a rush to the outcome.
Mentoring need not be a long leisurely dialogue away from the chaotic highs and lows of a busy enterprise. Few mentors or protégés have the luxury of time to have a conversation as if over a five-course meal in a fancy restaurant. But, there must be time for a rapport-building appetizer and a where-do-we-go-from-here dessert. There must be time for focused listening and meaningful reflection. And, there must be time for the sincere communication of interest and concern.
Mentoring cannot be rushed or strong armed. While insight can happen in a flash, getting to the point where the “aha” occurs requires a “safe stall” and a trusting relationship handcrafted by a mentor focused on a solid partnership, not just a “pail of milk.”