DEFINITION: A mentor is an expert (“subject matter expert,” “SME,” “domain expert,” “pro,” “guru,” “go-to person,” “rock star,” “buddy,” “genius,” etc.)—in any industry or line of work—who has unique, business-critical knowledge and needs or is asked to teach that knowledge to others. The knowledge can be explicit or tacit. And, a mentor can be any age and have 50 years seniority in an organization or one day. The essential factor is that the mentor knows something that others in an organization need to know in order to be successful.
There’s a common misconception in business that many subject matter experts are unwilling or unable to transfer their knowledge to coworkers. I often hear managers and apprenticing workers say things like, “We have experts who like being the only one who knows,” or “They won’t share—they think of their unique knowledge as job security.” But, the myth of the knowledge-hoarding expert who is unwilling to mentor is easily disproven.
In my experience leading a knowledge transfer consulting firm serving Fortune 500s, nonprofits, and the public sector for over 20 years, I have seen fewer than 5 people, literally, who have proven that they were actively unwilling to mentor others. In each of these cases, the reasons were so unique as to be not statistically relevant. That means everybody else can be managed and trained to transfer their knowledge.
The Real Reason Your Experts Fail to Mentor Their Peers
Here’s a story from Boeing from a number of years back that shows the true reasons why experts fail to transfer their critical knowledge. While we were preparing a knowledge transfer project, a team manager told me that one particular expert simply wouldn’t mentor. The manager said, “He hates people and he’s not very nice. We think he’s hoping to die in his chair and be left alone between now and then.” I love a challenge so, I asked this “unwilling” expert if I could buy him a cup of coffee and we had this conversation:
ME: “Did you know that people around here kinda think you’re a grumpy old curmudgeon? That you don’t want to help anybody, that you want to be left alone, and you’re not interested in teaching what you know?”
EXPERT: <sighing> “Steve, I’ve been here a long time. After I’d been here more than ten years, people would come to my office and start asking me questions. I’d sometimes spend a half a day with them, really working hard, drawing pictures on the white board, and trying to explain the answers to their questions. At the end of that half-day, two things would be true: they’d hate my guts, and they would’ve learned absolutely nothing from me. After a while, I decided to skip the part where I spend a half-day with them, and go directly to ‘they hate my guts and have learned absolutely nothing from me.’
“And furthermore, my managers don’t tell me what they want me to teach. They’ll say things like, ‘Can you let the new hire follow you around?’ or ‘Can you let her shadow you?’ But that doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve been here 30 years. Shadow me doing what?
“Also, nobody seems to really care what I know. Is there anybody in the whole company whose job it is to learn from me? What I do is not exciting. So who’s going to really make the effort to learn? And, oh, by the way, look at my schedule. I’m already completely overloaded. Where am I supposed to find time to do this?”
What this expert was doing was essentially asking a bunch of management questions that no one he reported to had ever clearly answered. Since none of these important questions had been answered for him, his previous efforts to mentor had failed and now he appeared to be grumpy and unwilling.
4 Crucial Questions Sturggling Experts Need Answered to Successfully Mentor Peers
In my experience, there are four questions that experts who struggle to mentor others repeatedly ask:
- WHO do you want me to teach? — “Everyone here seems either disinterested or already busy themselves. I’m not sure if anyone is really expected to learn from me.” Your experts need a clearly assigned apprentice(s). And, the apprentice needs to know that learning from the expert is a job expectation with accountability.
- WHAT do you want me to teach? — “I’ve been here a while. Don’t tell me to ‘teach everything I know.” Experts and apprentices need to know, down to the task level, what is the high priority knowledge to be transfer. A good Skill Development Plan will clarify the answer.
- WHEN should I teach and transfer this knowledge? — “I’m buried under a lot of work. How do I prioritize transferring knowledge relative to my other tasks?” Managers need to clearly prioritize where knowledge transfer falls in relation to an expert’s other work. Set a clear target of time to be spent on knowledge transfer; for example, “Sarah, you are expected to blocked out 6 hours per month for transferring your knowledge to Jim”—or in a high risk situation, such as a retiring or departing expert giving 30-day notice, “Stephen, I expect you to block out 20 hours per week for this.”
- HOW should I teach so that they get it quickly and correctly? — “I’ve tried to explain what I do in the past but it doesn’t work. My coworkers are so different from me, and some even get mad at me because I’m so bad at teaching.” Some expert employees will be “naturals” at sharing their knowledge. But in any given workforce, there will also be experts who aren’t. Give your experts tools and techniques for good knowledge transfer, such as how to write a clear agenda for teaching a skill and what test questions to ask to ensure knowledge was absorbed and retained. As long as the apprentice has the capacity to learn, any task can be taught by a qualified expert.
In short, don’t assume that somebody’s apparent unwillingness to mentor is their problem. Assume that it’s your problem and clearly answer these four basic questions for them. In the case of the Boeing expert, we gave the expert the clarity he sought: we assigned him an apprentice, we wrote a Skill Development Plan, we helped him schedule 3 – 5 hours a week that he could use to transfer knowledge; and then we gave him tools to help him teach better. He became an excellent mentor and his apprentices were just as successful as those taught by other mentors in the business unit.
Summary: Don’t be fooled by the myth of the subject matter expert who is unwilling or unable to mentor peers. Any expert can transfer their critical knowledge and expertise to others, if assigned a capable apprentice and if management has clearly answered for the expert these four essentially questions.