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Mentoring a New Author

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Firms that want to publish intellectual capital look around their pool of employees; if they find employees with experience, companies find ways to weave it into their publishing and knowledge management strategies. This excerpt from Publishing Intellectual Capital describes how mentoring can help get your firm's intellectual capital into print.

In many companies, publishing occurs when someone within the firm with publishing experience is willing to help others write and publish. It is rare. On the other hand, firms that want to publish intellectual capital look around their pool of employees; if they find employees with experience, companies find ways to weave it into their publishing and knowledge management strategies.

Mentoring typically develops in one of two ways: by accident or by design. As publishing becomes increasingly popular in businesses, those who have quietly been writing over the years are asked by others interested in publishing to answer questions, even to critique manuscripts, and are recruited to help place items with editors. Those firms that want to use mentoring as a process, however, approach the issue very differently.

The first step is to designate an individual in the corporation with responsibility for promoting publications by employees. The second step is to identify who in the firm already is publishing and is willing to help others, then to put in place whatever incentives are necessary to encourage the experienced to assist others. The incentives could range from setting aside time from their own work to help others, time to write more, travel budget to go to different parts of the organization to meet with would-be authors. That person could also run writing and publishing seminars within the firm. Then, management should reward, celebrate, and recognize the efforts.

What does a mentor do? The challenge for a mentor is to expose a would-be author to the tasks of writing and publishing while simultaneously passing on necessary skills and sustaining the neophyte's enthusiasm for the work until it is published. Most would-be authors know something—they are experts on a subject—but know little or nothing about writing. Sending them off to an English class at the local community college is not practical. You will have to help them start putting words on paper, showing them how to organize their thinking, maybe even coauthoring pieces with them so they see the process at work. They have to go through this drill about three times before they know enough to dispense with a mentor. Using a ghost writer can be very helpful. The mission is to teach skills and to further tacit knowledge, not to transfer facts.

Would-be writers all seem to ask the same questions—the issues the book you are reading is about—and therefore the mentor fields many telephone calls, spends countless hours in staff meetings and "over lunch" gatherings, answering and promoting and encouraging people to try writing. To a large extent, mentors are cheerleaders urging people to write and then bursting with pride when their prot__s publish. As momentum builds, that is, as people hear about the existence of someone in the firm who is willing to mentor, many will come forward. The problem for the mentor is which people to invest in. Many want to publish, few actually do. As a mentor, you will simply have to practice a sort of literary triage to determine who to invest in. As in medical triage, you separate people into categories: those who are wasting your time, those who might get some work done, and those who have the potential and determination to publish. You will spend time with all three groups, but you want to focus more on the third because those people become the basis for an expanded pool of mentors in later years. In a business environment, there is also a fourth pool that cannot be ignored, those whom you must help for political reasons. These could include your manager, who sees a way to publish by riding on the shoulders of a writing employee, those whom you are ordered to get into print, and so forth. That fourth group is usually small; you can handle them deftly by just writing a piece and listing the person as coauthor. Or, simply throw a ghost writer at the project and manage that effort as any other business initiative.

Mentors should, however, bring potential authors into research and writing projects when the other parties have something to contribute, such as expert knowledge. It is a wonderful way to write oneself and train others without skipping a beat. Mentors are in a better position, for example, to conceive of a major project—a book-length collection of chapters by multiple authors—as a vehicle for training a half-dozen or more people at the same time. Mentors themselves should continue writing and publishing, sharing their experiences while doing this, so others can see by example. Knowing and watching an author is inspirational because observing takes much of the mystery out of writing and publishing. Lifting the veil of the unknown, exposing the mystery of writing, may be the single most important act of a mentor. Once people know what the mentor knows, many will conclude that they, too, can write and publish, that they, too, have something at least as important to say as that individual.

At the nuts-and-bolts level, mentors often tell people exactly what to do, read and correct their various drafts, may call editors to place material or coach authors on how to do that, then celebrate these accomplishments. Mentors will get telephone calls on Saturday afternoon, will have to set aside time on Sunday afternoons and while on airplane rides to read manuscripts, and have to tell people very diplomatically how to improve their literary babies. Most of the material will be of very poor quality, often not suitable for publication. The mentor's challenge is to deliver that message without discouraging the would-be writer or to show an individual how to invigorate the material to make it publishable. To get closer to the latter positions, mentors should focus on several kinds of tasks:

  • Force would-be authors to outline and to understand what the key messages are and for what audience

  • Force would-be authors to write and polish, write and polish, then polish, polish, and polish

  • Force would-be authors to show their material to other experts, then fix and polish

Don't let would-be authors treat the material as if it were an extension of themselves. Be cold-blooded about the content and quality of the material from the first contact. Would-be authors need to have the detachment of a third party, like a forensic pathologist doing an autopsy on their creation. The mentor must teach them this task.

As the process of mentoring develops, it will become clear who is going to write and publish and who is simply talking a good game. Winners are those who have something to write about and invest the time to put their thoughts on paper. Spend a great deal of time with those people because they will deliver results. I define results in this case as publications sitting on my bookshelf. Read their papers, really work them over to show how they can be improved and polished. Personally introduce your winners to editors, engaging them in the process of selling their material to a publisher. Once they have had a taste of success, push them to do more. More in this case means additional articles, sometimes with multiple writing projects going on simultaneously, and then, ultimately, a book. Set expectations for additional performance from your stars and cheer them on, reinforcing their confidence. These activities are very much what a good professor in graduate school does with a star pupil writing a doctoral dissertation. You see the same kind of behavior in a skilled craftsman teaching an apprentice, a carpenter bringing a would-be colleague along. It is showing, correcting, congratulating, and doing more of the same, and forcing a prot_ to do as the mentor does until the skill is mastered. Mentoring frequently involves a multiyear relationship with an individual, cutting across jobs and career changes. There is no other way—it just takes time to train new writers and to get them published.

Momentum creates its own opportunities. For example, editors constantly solicit experienced authors to write articles and books. Somehow, good writers wind up in the Rolodex files of many editors, including in those of journals and publishers they have never worked with before! If busy, the good author normally declines the invitation. A busy mentor might say to the editor, "I don't have the time," or "I am not as qualified to do this work you want," but then adds the phrase, "but I know someone who is qualified and does have the time. And I'll work with her to make sure the manuscript meets with your satisfaction." Then, you talk the would-be author into taking on the assignment, with you as mentor to make sure it gets done right.

Over time, your relations with authors change. As they gain confidence, experience, and enjoy publishing successes, they will need less nuts-and-bolts help than before. Like peers, they will seek out your advice on messages and content and less on writing and publishing. It is then that you have to teach them to mentor others in the firm, bringing those others along the way you did them. Otherwise, your phonemail will remain clogged with messages from wanna-be's. It is in your self-interest as a mentor to expand the pool of like-minded mentors. This is particularly true in very large corporations, such as at my IBM, where a lot of really skilled people with lots of energy and ambition want help getting published. The same circumstance exists at such other firms as Philips, Citicorp, AT&T, General Motors, Mobil Oil, and so many others. In the companies just mentioned, employees have not hesitated to call me for mentoring. So, if the word gets out, a good mentor may be asked to help others in other companies! Recruit additional mentors!

A Case Study: A Factory Unto Himself

James Martin is one of the most prolific authors in American business history. In 1996, he published his 100th book, Cybercorp. All his books have been on business topics, in fact, all on various aspects of information processing. Some have been technical books for IT professionals, others for business management, and some for folks like you and me.

James Martin began writing books on computing while an employee at IBM in the 1960s. His early books on database management and telecommunications became instant classics. He later published books on programming methodologies and application development. The company supported his work and eventually, after nearly two decades at the firm, he went out on his own. He continued to write books and eventually started his own consulting firm. Life has been good for James Martin.

But what made him a successful author that his publisher, IBM when he was there, and now the man himself can take pride in, was his burning desire to write and publish. He proved willing to do it within the realities of working within a corporation, in terms that made sense to the reading professional, and later in support of his consulting practice. The moral of his experience is that authors can be highly successful both out on their own or as part of a corporate structure. Employers, an industry, and publishers can all benefit from having a James Martin working with them.

Author vs. the U.S. First Amendment

In the United States, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of speech against political suppression. Lawyers will tell you that First Amendment issues are between citizens and their government. Authors, however, feel it is always an issue between them and anybody who might want to constrain their expression—governments, religions, or corporations—and thus sometimes are at odds with their employers, talking at one level while the lawyers are on a different point. Authors have a tradition of cherishing the First Amendment, and so it becomes the source of contention when some organization attempts to constrain (authors say, censor) their ability to express themselves. The problem is not absent from the business environment.

The Key Issues:

  • Ability to express one's opinions on any issue without fear of censorship or recrimination by the organization one works for

  • Ability to write and speak on any topic

When This Right Creates Tensions:

  • The firm might be harmed by revelation of sensitive or competitive information.

  • The firm feels it must control what its employees say and write outside the firm.

  • The firm is in danger of being exposed to criminal or civil suits or to competitive attack.

  • The firm attempts to retain possession of its intellectual capital.

How Firms and Authors Deal with the Issues:

  • The firm defines clearly what its publishing policies are and gains commitment of employees to adhere to them.

  • The author uses common sense, understanding that it is not always in everyone's interests to give away intellectual capital, embarrass the firm, or reinforce competition.

  • Authors and companies discuss potential publications, coming to an understanding on a case-by-case basis on what and how things should be published.

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