Friday, March 29, 2013

Broken brackets and healed relationships

Early last week, I joined several million of my closest friends in the annual ritual of filling out an NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket. Coming out of an upset-filled first weekend, I was riding high. Dumb luck had smiled on me, and I found myself near the top of the heap. I was ranked in the 97th percentile among participants in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge.

Then, last night, the tournament’s second weekend got underway. I missed on three of my four picks and saw my projected national champion make an early exit from the field. My overall ranking hasn’t plummeted just yet, but any dreams I might have had of fighting off throngs of reporters crowding around my door asking what’s behind my power of prognostication and seeking my opinions about capital markets and corn futures have gone up in smoke.

As is the case with my tournament bracket, a lot can change from one week to the next in a mentoring match. Ever have a tiff with a good friend and see your perception of that person take a big-time turn for the worse? Even long-standing friendships between mature individuals can sour at what might seem to an objective observer like a small-potatoes issue.

Imagine how much greater is the possibility of something going badly wrong when the parties involved are just getting to know one another—and are still in the process of constructing a bridge to span some major differences in culture, life circumstance, and so on.

All this speaks to the necessity of regular monitoring and contact with the members of our committed partnerships. This is definitely not a case where no news is good news. Just as my Tournament Challenge entry didn’t reach out to inform me that my bracket just drove off a cliff, it’s not realistic to expect that a teen is going to call me to say he’s thoroughly peeved with his mentor. Without regular check-ins initiated by an impartial and supportive staff member, he’d be more likely to simmer silently and let the relationship slowly fail.

I hope you’ve had the experience of recovering a relationship from what feels, at least in the moment, like a major disagreement or misunderstanding. And I hope many of our Coaching for Success program participants get to experience this during the course of their time with YES!Atlanta. Learning to get past hard feelings to preserve something of great value is both empowering and rewarding.

My bracket is a lost cause. Their relationships are anything but.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Have you ever finished reading a novel or watching a movie and found yourself thoroughly satisfied with the ending and marveling at how the writer got you there?

My all-time favorite film is Shawshank Redemption, which I believe accomplishes the rare feat of being even better than the short story it’s based on. I love the way director Frank Darabont builds the story of Andy’s friendship with Red, masterfully separates them out from one another, and concludes with their reunion on the beaches of Zihuatanejo.

I recently had a series of encounters with the members of one of our committed partnerships that, in a small way, echoed Shawshank for me.

We paired Asia and Latorsha last fall. Since that time I’ve had a couple of firsthand opportunities to observe them spending time together and have gotten frequent reports about the status of their match, most often from Asia. The theme of those reports has been unwavering, even as the circumstances vary—Asia has always reported an extremely high degree of satisfaction with the relationship.

Now, this fact by itself wouldn’t be all that remarkable. Some young people (and, for that matter, some adults) display the tendency to tell me what they think I want to hear. Not so Asia. If there’s one teen in the Coaching for Success program right now who I can count on to say what’s on her mind—good, bad, or ugly—it’s Asia.

She’s not a bit shy about telling me (or really anyone who cares to hear) if she doesn’t like someone, and she’s shown no inclination to withhold information when she’s gotten into it with peers at school.

It seemed that this match was sailing along smoothly. So I was a bit taken aback on the day we’d scheduled their four-month checkup to get word that Asia’s mom had called, frustrated, and asked to cancel the meeting because she didn’t know where her daughter was and couldn’t get in touch with her. Then Latorsha texted saying she couldn’t reach Asia and, since she had no-showed for their last scheduled meeting, didn’t want to drive into town without some confirmation that the experience wouldn’t be repeated. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Sounds like we’ll have some things to talk about if we can pull this meeting off tonight.”

The meeting did come together that evening, but it required none of the de-tangling of raw feelings I’d anticipated. All three ladies were present and in high spirits. They hadn’t buried their feelings, but had simply expressed them, addressed them, and moved on. Asia and Latorsha talked at length about the importance of communication in their relationship. Of course they share favorite activities (dining out around town tops the list), but clearly the most important thing they do is talk—often, and about pretty much anything.

Every relationship hits some bumps in the road. Despite our best intentions, cell phone batteries die, car tires go flat, family emergencies come up, misunderstandings happen. A true friendship, though, can endure whatever circumstances may work against it. Just ask Andy and Red—or Asia and Latorsha.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Survey says…?

[Spoiler Alert: we don’t yet have the data from the surveys referenced in this post’s title, so Family Feud devotees expecting to instantly hear a “ding!” and see an answer pop up are likely to be disappointed.]

The honeymoon is officially over for the first bunch of mentoring matches we made last fall. That’s no cause for alarm, though—these matches are only a few months old, but they’re built to last.

We celebrate a match’s successful completion of their first four months by bringing both committed partners together for a face-to-face meeting with a member of the program staff. We circle up and give everyone a chance to share from their experience. We verify that everyone’s contact info is up-to-date, make sure we have a workable list of goals on paper, and ask both partners to complete a survey.

I had the pleasure some years ago of making the acquaintance of John Harris, a highly regarded expert in mentoring evaluation. John is the lead author of a couple of surveys that are terrific diagnostic tools for programs interested in producing and documenting high quality matches.

John is the person who first introduced me to the phenomenon of the mentoring match honeymoon. It makes sense, really. Ask the sorts of questions included in the surveys during the “getting-to-know-you” phase of a relationship, and you’re likely to get results that are somewhat skewed, especially from youths. Depending on a young person’s age and temperament, those first few weeks and months might be spent toward either extreme of what we might call the “relationship reality” scale.

At one end of this scale is the “Ohmygosh this is SO amazing! It’s outside the realm of possibility that my mentor could ever do anything wrong” bunch. At the other end is the “Are you kidding me? We’re just gonna sit here and talk for an hour?!? This is NOT what I signed up for” crowd. Once the match matures a bit and its members build some common experience, the responses tend to settle in somewhere between the extremes.

That’s what I’ve observed while conducting several of these four month checkups recently. The blindfolds and rose-colored glasses are off, and I’m pleased to find a lot of teens and adults willing and able to give meaningful (and generally good) assessments of where things stand. They laugh together as they recall funny incidents, complete each other’s sentences, embarrass one another with the insider information they’ve learned. No, they’re not newlyweds, but they are committed partners.

Well, as promised at the outset, I don’t have hard match relationship quality data for you right now. It’s in the realm of possibility that the surveys will uncover a different story than the one the mentors and teens have verbalized to us. We might get a smattering of “Where did that come from?!?” answers à la Family Feud, but I certainly don’t expect we’ll learn that the matches we think are successful are actually disasters. Stay tuned….