Invest Your Time with Your Best People

Let’s say that your company started a mentoring program as a part of corporate responsibility. Professionals like you from different different departments with varying expertise volunteer time to mentor a young person, say a high school student, a college student or maybe a young person who is out of school and working. There are more young people participating than volunteers to accommodate them. How do you select the young people to mentor?

I asked this question to a group of Japanese managers at a Japanese company. Most wanted to be selective. Some said they might interview candidates to see who was the most motivated to learn, who had superior communication skills, or who had a track record of success, etc. Others said they would choose candidates based on their academic grades. One person suggested designing some kind of written exam. Overall, the managers wanted to volunteer their time with people who already had strong skills and a good track record.

I then asked, “Why not volunteer to spend your time with the weakest people—the ones who were less motivated, had poor or average grades, and a spotty track record? After all, they are the ones who need the most help to catch up.”

Most the managers said they would be against that. Why? Because the strongest candidates were most likely to make use of the mentoring and contribute to society.

However, the previous day these same managers had howled with disapprobation when I suggested that sales managers spend most of their time with the strongest sales people on their team. The Japanese managers said that 80% of the sales manager’s time should be spent with the weakest people on the team. After all, the best did not need the help, whereas the weakest needed help to catch up.

I pointed out that if you invest most of your time say with two star sales people each selling 100% of quota, maybe they can get to 200%, whereas with three weaker sales people selling at 80% quota, they might improve only to 90%.

The Japanese managers insisted their thinking is “the Japanese way,” and what I suggested was “American.” I am not sure that is really the case. I think I might get the same debate with a group of American managers.

I asked how the volunteer scenario is different from the sales manager scenario. One manager said it is because the goals are different—one is sales, the other is contributing to society. Then what about the better sales results? Doesn’t that matter if the goal is sales? Silence.

“Could the difference be this?” I asked. “In the volunteer case, you are investing your own time, but in the sales manager case, you are working with someone else’s money if you are an employee.”

“So let’s test this,” I continued. Let’s say you owned the company. You put your own capital at risk. With whom would you want your sales managers to spend time?”

Suddenly, there was a consensus to invest time with the best people.

I suppose it is all a matter of perspective.