Shift & Mentor: Stretching Skill Sets Effectively

George Lutz
George Lutz

First, a excerpt from Talent Is Overrated, What Really Separates World Class Performers From Everyone Else, by Geoff Colvin:

…the best organizations assign people to jobs in much the same way that sports coaches or music teachers choose exercises for their students — to push them just beyond their current capabilities and build the skills that are most important. John Lechleiter, president of Eli Lilly, describes a typical model: about two-thirds of people development comes from carefully chosen job assignments, about one-third from mentoring and coaching …and a smidgen from classroom training.

Building people through job assignments seems obvious in theory but in practice it’s tough. Organizations tend to assign people based on what they’re already good at, not what they need to work on. The merciless competitive pressure on every company makes it difficult to pull accomplished employees out of jobs they do extremely well and put them into positions where they may struggle. That’s a tension every organization must deal with in order to become more successful.

Let’s take an example scenario in which we have a new piece of work W, a newly hired tester N, and an existing tester E, who has expertise in some area. Who do we assign to W?

The typical approach would be to simply assign N to the work on W. This may even make plenty of sense if N is uniquely skilled for the work or has been hired as a specialist in the relevant area, for example. However, taking this path in all cases will cause the following problems:

  1. E remains as a single point of failure in their area of expertise.
  2. E gets bored working on the same thing for several years.
  3. N has no expert to train her.
  4. E never gets a chance to mentor/manage others.

The Shift & Mentor model solves all of these problems by a) shifting the existing expert to a new area of focus, while b) allowing them to train a new employee. The result:

  1. E is no longer a single point of failure in their area of expertise — there is now an apprentice. This is good for the team as a whole.
  2. E is now engaged in a new exciting project. Their skills are being stretched.
  3. N gets trained by an expert. This is good for N.
  4. E gains experience mentoring/managing others.

In many cases over the past few years we’ve used a Shift & Mentor model at Trimble Maps with enormous success. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, we look for a path to execute a Shift & Mentor. It also need not only be applied when a new employee is starting — it works whenever there is a new piece of work to own and two potential owners.

Ultimately, this stretches the skills of developers and testers, keeping them engaged and learning new skills year after year. At Trimble Maps, we work with so many different products and technologies so Shift & Mentor is essential to get coverage on all of it. The variety of work we have to assign out, by its nature, permits Shift & Mentor to be relevant in the first place.

Interested in joining our team at Trimble Maps? Click here!

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