Institutional Knowledge - Are You Doing Your Part To Protect It?

Paul_CollyerBy Paul Collyer, Panelmet Consulting

Every business has key people – the ones that everyone goes to when no one else seems to have any answers. They may be managers, supervisors or maybe even hourly employees. They are often people who have been in the business for some length of time, and have survived various management and ownership teams. Usually they are easy to spot – just look for the line of people standing outside their office hoping to gain a few moments of “wisdom and knowledge”. Folks like these form the heart and soul of any business, and are the glue that holds companies together. They are the ones who by virtue of their time spent in the company can serve as translator between “the new ways and the old ways” of doing things, and provide a historical perspective on past failures and successes.

This is where it gets tricky – how do you share and preserve the knowledge and experience “aka the essence” of these unique people for the benefit of the entire business? There are several things every company should do to take full advantage of these resources, and today we will cover one of the most effective ones – mentoring.

Every key employee has had the opportunity at one or more points in their career to learn from someone more experienced than they to learn the ins and outs of a business, an industry or a trade. Often, these mentoring relationships just “happen” without any conscious effort or support from management. Older, more experienced employees see something they admire or respect about a younger or newer employee, or maybe see a little bit of themselves in this person and “take them under their wing”. However, to be effective managers of the business we need to extend ourselves and be available to mentor those who are interested in learning from us.

How many times have we heard managers complain about how hard it is to find good employees, yet we often do so little to develop them once they are hired? Not every hire falls in our lap fully trained in our industry and with all the tools necessary for success. But many of them can be diamonds in the rough if someone just takes the time to reach out and mentor those who are willing and able to learn. If you are reading this article today, ask yourself these questions:

• Who has mentored me along the way? Have I taken the time to express my gratitude for their efforts?

• Who in our organization can I mentor? Am I willing to take a few moments out of my day for the express purpose of guiding someone else coming up through the ranks?

“Paying it forward” is a popular phrase these days. I’ll never forget an experience I had regarding mentoring. I was a sales rep for a construction products company, and we had hired a new customer service rep who knew absolutely nothing as far as I could tell about construction, or our products. None of the other sales reps wanted this person to be their inside partner due to their inexperience and lack of knowledge. By default, this person was assigned to my territory, as evidently I was the only rep who did not outright reject the “newbie”. I have very fond memories of spending ten minutes here, thirty minutes there answering questions and explaining why we did certain things a certain way, or suggesting possible solutions to customer problems this person had encountered. It took a while before it dawned on me – I had over time, become this employee’s mentor.

Several years passed with us having our weekly conversations. Then a funny thing happened – I started getting phone calls from other reps within the business lamenting that their support person was not at the same level as mine! The fun was in reminding them that they had their chance, but they apparently had decided it wasn’t worth their time being a mentor. The desire to learn, coupled with enthusiasm and the drive to succeed resulted in a very capable employee who has since moved into management to become a key player in that organization.

Employees who have been properly mentored are more apt to remain loyal to the business, and will experience greater opportunities for advancement in their careers. They are also much more likely to seek out others to whom they can “pay it forward”.

Manager’s tips for the day:

Remember who it was who helped you along the way. Chances are, you would not be where you are without them.

Foster and encourage mentoring within your business, and lead by example! Make it a part of your company culture to take an interest in your employees – you will be surprised at how your efforts are multiplied in return.

The willingness to listen, to learn, to understand and consider different points of view along with the will to succeed are more important ingredients for success than prior experience. The most rewarding experience a good manager can have is watching someone they have mentored become successful in the business.

In our next column, we will review the importance of preserving institutional knowledge through improved employee retention.

Paul Collyer is vice president of business development for Metl-Span. He holds an Industrial and and Systems Engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), with professional affiliations/certifications that include Construction Specifications Institute (member), Certified Construction Product Representative (CCPR), LEED Green Associate (USGBC) and Green Globes Professional (GBI). Collyer has more than 27 years’ experience working for construction product manufacturers in the insulated metal panel, single-element metal cladding and pre-engineered metal building industry.

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