Organizations depend increasingly on independent, temporary workers, even for mission-critical work. We call this subset of freelancers who do strategic work in companies or nonprofit organizations agile talent. They contribute technical expertise that an organization does not already have to a critical project or initiative. By providing temporary support, they make it possible for organizations to resource their critical activities more cost efficiently.
Many of the benefits of agile talent have been widely reported. But a benefit that has received less attention is the contribution they can make as mentors to an organization’s full-time staff. Tapping into your outside experts to help in the development of internal employees is a valuable way to address the needs of both. Experts are often looking for ways to help junior people in their profession, and younger employees are hungry for training and development. For example, research by Google, reported by Jolt, points out that less than 20% of tech employees in Silicon Valley believes the training they receive fits their goals and needs.
A practical framework for mentoring is based on the career stages work of Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, former professors at HBS. Their research has found that high-performing professionals tend to transit through four distinct stages of development:
- Apprentice: Helper and learner; establishes a reputation for trust, teamwork, and cultural congruity.
- Individual contributor: Builds recognized functional expertise; makes a significant independent contribution; demonstrates accountability and ownership for results.
- Mentor/coach: Contributes through others as a formal manager, an idea leader, a project owner, or an informal employee developer.
- Sponsor/strategist: Sets or influences strategic direction and important decisions; exercises power on behalf of the organization; prepares future leaders.
Stages 3 and 4 are developmental stages where mentoring skills are typically developed and sharpened. And, it turns out, agile talent in stages 3 and 4 is often eager to provide coaching and mentorship to junior professionals working with them.
But it’s not only their career stage that makes agile talent potentially excellent mentors. For example, successful agile talent is, almost by definition, entrepreneurial. They are actively involved in building their business, developing their strategies, growing and maintaining strong customer relationships, and creating a service offering that’s attractive to their market. This type of entrepreneurial mindset is extremely helpful and is very often lacking among full-time employees who don’t have significant market or competitive contact.
How can an organization encourage the mentoring of employees by their critical outside experts? We suggest five steps that leaders can take.
Establish Informal Coaching Relationships
Experts are often brought onboard an organization to solve a crisis. When this is the case, it may be difficult to arrange for a formal coaching relationship with members of your full-time staff. And it may be difficult for agile talent working remotely to provide mentorship to those on-site. But when circumstances are more supportive, stage 3 or 4 agile talent may be eager to support the development of young high potentials or junior professionals in your organization who would benefit from a coaching relationship. In past work, my arrangements with outside experts always included time for them to teach me as well as work with them. These experiences were some of the most valuable of my career.
Provide Channels for Sharing Knowledge
Managers tap these outside experts for help because of their knowledge and experience. Beyond the project contribution, technical and functional experts should be asked to share their expertise and educate the team on best practice insights and new innovations in their field of expertise. A brown bag lunch with the team, for example, helps to build the team’s relationship with these experts and reinforces collaboration and engagement. More-formal methods, such as after-action reviews, are useful too.
Involve Experts as Part of the Brain Trust
Smart project managers know that bringing a team together to collaboratively solve tough problems both builds teamwork and improves performance. Extending this participation to agile talent is a potentially powerful opportunity for young professionals to see new or alternative approaches to problem solving. And it is very likely to lead to closer relationships and greater developmental engagement between outside experts and internal staff employees.
Engage Experts in Providing Developmental Feedback
Many years ago an HBS colleague asked me if I was interested in developmental feedback. I was, and his comment was tough to hear: “You are talented but sloppy. You need to be more organized and disciplined.” It was one of the most helpful bits of advice I’ve ever received. While painful to hear, over the past couple of decades I’ve learned to appreciate the clarity and sincerity of his comments. It put me on a developmental journey that has made me a better professional. In the years that have followed, I’ve consistently done something similar, asking my students and consulting clients if they are interested in feedback. They almost always are.
Connect with Experts’ Networks
Agile talent is often connected to different networks than the internal team members with whom they are working. I’m frequently asked: Who has interesting ideas? What are you reading? What are the innovations you find most exciting? As a result, I spend a fair amount of time introducing people to one another and suggesting networks to join or individuals to meet. We encourage managers and team members to seek the advice of outside experts and to explicitly have the conversation about who is worth getting to know and where interesting or innovative things are happening.
We live in a time when keeping up technically and professionally is increasingly important and difficult. Mentoring is one of the important tools that managers have to contribute to the development of their team. Utilizing agile talents as mentors and coaches is a way to multiply the value of an organization’s investment in outside experts.
First appeared in: Younger, Jon. “Bring in Outside Experts to Mentor Your Team.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Review, 01 Feb. 2017. Web.