How to mentor and inspire an employee

There are many learnable skills in the food service industry: food cost and payroll management, effective ordering, inventory and stocking techniques, food preparation and facility management. These are industry critical skills; while they do not necessarily transport to smart business in general, what does freely translate across all businesses is the ability to communicate and coordinate with nearly everyone and inspire them by being a mentor to perform, successfully, the tasks that need to be done… with a smile.

When we find someone with this wonderful skill and we see it is also accompanied by other important leadership skills like discipline, hard work, integrity and “smarts,” we single out this rising star and go to work.

Some folks call it the “fast track,” although there is nothing especially fast about it. The accelerated learning pace always proceeds at the speed the star can absorb the information and the experience. How fast and how well the person “gets it” is an indication of the magnitude of the star.

So, let’s say you have a rising star on your hands; a real high achiever who has the potential to do big things for your team and your business. How do you effectively develop this person to his or her full potential?

Here are five good paths I’ve tried to follow.

  1. Qualify the candidate. Don’t fall in love with “smooth.” Ask yourself what you are really looking for. On a piece of paper, list all the core qualities you appreciate about the candidate. Put down all the strengths you see and also apparent weaknesses you plan to shore up. Start a file with this person’s name and place your thoughts in the file. This is a living document you will want to update as new information comes to light.
  2. Don’t push. Sit down with your star and ask him or her about specific plans and goals. What if the dreams are either disappointingly small, naïvely large or incompatible with your mission? One way to do this is with the age-old question, “Where do you see yourself in two, five and 10 years?”
    A better way is to ask the person to construct a three-column list on a piece of paper. In the first column, that person should show all the things (material, financial, spiritual, positions, achievements) he or she feels driven to gain, possess, produce and accomplish in life and business, particularly in association with your business (the got-to-have’s and the must-do’s).
    The second column is a list of those things that would be nice to have or nice to do but are not critically essential (you and I would call these non- deal breakers).
    The third column gets the things your high achiever will not abide, will not tolerate and will not put up with in business and in life. A joint conversation about this information will be eye opening for both of you. Be sure to place a copy of this “What Is Important to Me” sheet in his or her file.
  3. “The helping hand you need is often at the end of your very own arm.” Ask your star to, “Share with me, please, the details of your self-development plan.” No, you don’t expect it to be comprehensive and you certainly won’t use it as your development plan for the mentee. But, this question gives insight into how self-aware and focused the individual is. It also signals the fact that development is a wo-way street with as much responsibility residing with the mentee as with the mentor.
  4. Crunch time! If you are not personally acting as the mentor, choose very wisely. Good players (executors) don’t always make good coaches (teachers). The best mentors are good listeners, have a sincere interest in helping other people succeed, show a solid track record of success, possess knowledge and experience in the mentee’s specific area of interest and command peer respect.
    The last is critical. The greater the peer-respect for your mentor choice, the greater the chances of success for your star.
  5. Down to details. If you are not the mentor, give all the info in the star’s file to the person you select. I like to ask my appointed mentors to take a week digging in with the mentee and then prepare a three column “Learn List.” This is a list of things (skills, knowledge, books to be read, etc.) that your rising high achiever absolutely needs to learn in: 1) the next 30 days, 2) in the next six months and 3) in the ensuing year which ends one year from today.

    There are several copies made of this plan: the mentee gets one, the mentor gets one and, of course, you get one. If you are not the actual mentor, it will be critical to follow up and follow progress every month. The more involved you are, the better your star’s chances for great success.

Bert Thornton graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1968, where he attended on a full football scholarship. He then spent two years as an artillery officer in the United States Army, serving a tour in South Vietnam. Thornton joined Waffle House, Inc. as a manager trainee in 1971, where he ultimately ended up as the president and COO in 2004. Today, Thornton is vice chairman emeritus of Waffle House, Inc. and resides in Pensacola, Florida, with his wife, Kathy.

These mentoring tips and many others are available throughout his book, Find An Old Gorilla: Pathways Through The Jungles of Business and Life, available in soft cover at and on line at Amazon and Barnes and Noble for E-book.