As a medical device engineer for the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen firsthand that technical skills aren’t enough when it comes to success. I learned early on that I needed mentors who could point out my blind spots and expand my perspective.
Today’s teams need mentorship, possibly more than ever. Why? Companies are in a race to bring innovation to market. Teams have tight timelines and high expectations, which lead to frustration, stress, and burnout. If you’re leading a team today, you know what I mean.
Given this new reality, how can we help teams deliver results, while maintaining their sanity and morale? How do we help employees show up confidently on fast-paced technical teams? How do we guide them?
My answer is simple: mentors. I’ve seen the way that mentors can re-center teams, help them rediscover their talent and skills, and guide them back to the path to success. When it comes to technical teams, mentors are magic. They help us realize and remember what we already know.
To highlight these facts, I will share one of my favorite stories about the difference mentorship can make. An early-stage medical device company was struggling to address customer complaints. Their complaint inbox was overflowing, and the company was dangerously close to being out of regulatory compliance. The complaint-handling team was overwhelmed and asked for more resources. They also wanted the CEO to delay their next-generation product development. They were unable to keep up, much less move forward.
Complaint handling has high stakes in the medical device industry. There is an immediate risk assessment to understand if any immediate corrections are needed to protect patients, followed by root cause determination. Then comes a plan to implement and gauge the effectiveness of corrective and preventive actions. It is a phased process with cross-functional input and review. Certain deadlines in complaint handling are based on legal requirements to report safety-related issues within specified timelines.
The stakes were high, but in the end it only took three small changes to get the team back on track:
Create a priority system
When a team is overwhelmed, they need an effective triage system. The first step was to create a dashboard to prioritize all the complaints based on criticality and when the next action was due.
From there we charted metrics — such as time to complete each phase of the complaint-handling process, number of open complaints, and number of complaints by root cause. Tracking complaints by root cause ensured the team was effective in resolving the issues that led to complaints. The priority system made it clear to everyone on the team and to senior leadership where they stood and what to work on next. The team was now able to focus on the most important work, instead of drowning in a sea of urgent and non-urgent issues.
Make the work visible to everyone
Additionally, once we made the work visible and transparent, the team and leadership knew the status and performance at a glance. Keeping the dashboard updated and accurate meant no more wondering or second-guessing. The company could communicate confidently with external partners and customers.
Set up a workflow that aligned with the dashboard
We decided to publish the dashboard every Friday. To encourage progress, I’d share the dashboard with the complaint-handling team on Wednesdays, so complaint owners could work on trouble spots. On Thursdays, the team would meet and provide the necessary cross-functional review to talk through the open work. And Friday, leadership would know that a dashboard was up to date and accurate.
The results of these simple changes felt magical. The team started to fly through the complaints. They did a better job effectively resolving each problem instead of sitting on it or pushing it to someone else. Repeat complaints fell. The throughput was stronger by a factor of four, and we reduced the amount of in-person meeting time by half. And the team took back control, making these improvements with the resources that they already had. Because of all of this, leaders felt a renewed confidence in the team’s abilities, and key commercial partners saw that the complaint handling was back on track.
The engineers, who cared about their work and were good at their jobs, were able to emerge from a cloud of overwhelming complaints and start creating the outcomes we all wanted. They felt relieved and proud. And they created the time they needed to maintain corporate goals and build a second-generation product — a better product — that would ultimately prevent many more potential complaints.
Now, in case you missed it, let me make it clear that it isn’t the mentor’s job to jump in and personally fix all of the complaints. I actually didn’t do any engineering work at all. Instead, as a neutral third-party mentor, I was able to see the problems and help the team unlock the solutions. Instead of fixing their immediate tactical problems, we worked together to build the structure they needed to succeed for the long term.
When you make your list of resourcing priorities, you probably think about the technical tools your teams will need, the management structure you’ll use, and the continued education you’ll provide. But team mentorship deserves a spot on that list, at least for consideration. It’s a critical way to stay innovative in our hectic, fast-changing environment. Mentors are the magic we need to help us unlock teams’ core talents.
As the CEO of Bessel, Chris Danek is dedicated to making an impact by bringing people together using human centered design and agile teamwork to solve creative challenges. With interactive workshops, real-world, project-based learning, and active mentorship, the Bessel Origin program helps organizations shift their culture and identify, develop, and retain high-potential teams.