“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill

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According to legend, Mentor was the person to whom Odysseus (Ulysses) entrusted his son Telemachus when he went off on his “walkabout”, which we now call an odyssey, and which took him through a series of adventures including the Trojan wars.

Author: Rosemania; via Wikimedia Commons

The word has now come to describe someone who takes the role of counsel or advisor usually to a younger and less experienced person, to help them become better at what they do. (See “How to earn a promotion” posted April 6, 2011).

In many companies “Mentoring” has become a formalised process managed by the HR organisation that allocates mentors to protégés, generally young people who are considered to be of high potential, in the belief that giving them access to a wiser, more experienced, influential person will help to accelerate their skills, capabilities and their career.

I am not specifically against the idea of formal HR-driven mentoring programmes as I believe that they are better than not having a mentoring initiative in the company, but I have always believed that more success can be gained by allowing this “coupling” to be driven by the individuals as part of natural selection, rather than by HR. I believe that turning mentoring into an institutionalised, process-driven programme will be less successful than a mutually beneficial, personally selected interaction between two individuals.

Author: Mamunjoy (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

The problem is that, in my experience, HR driven mentoring programmes are often seen by senior people as being something that is more “touchy-feely” than having serious business benefit, whilst unfortunately such people development activities, if just left to the individuals, rarely happen.
I find it hard however to understand why more senior people do not actively pursue a mentoring role, as the rewards and returns to the mentor are significantly more than the time and energy needed to fulfil the role.
Beyond the obvious satisfaction of helping to mould a young mind in one’s own image, which is very god-like and ego satisfying, the mentor has much to gain from the experience if handled with serious commitment.

For younger mentors with minimal people experience it is a useful introduction to the idea of taking some involvement in someone else’s welfare and progress, which is not a bad start to the whole world of management, whereas to an older person it is a good way to stay well connected to younger people with a different generational view of reality. I have had some senior execs suggest that they get this from their own children but I contend that the father/child relationship generally puts a different spin on “reality” than in a business based mentor/protégé one.

The mentoring process also helps to develop some disciplines in both halves of the relationship. For mentoring to be successful and valuable to both participants it is critical that the mentoring sessions are more than just a “chat-fest”. I have witnessed a few such implementations of mentoring where the pair would meet once a quarter for lunch and carry on a conversation around the topic of “How are things going with you ?”. Whilst these sessions may make the mentor feel that he is doing something worthwhile, the only positive result for the protégé is generally that he occasionally gets a free lunch from a more senior person and, if lucky, may get some additional insight on some things that are happening in the company, as senior people tend to love being seen as fonts of knowledge about what is going on.

Author: Marcoronaldo7; via Wikimedia Commons

For mentoring to be successful, there needs to be a proper plan, and this planning process in itself has significant value to both participants. For the mentor it helps to crystallize his view of what it takes to build a successful career in the company, which helps in the management and development of the mentor’s own subordinates, as well as identifying areas of weakness that exist within the organisation’s talent management and development. For the protégé it forces a serious attempt at an understanding of what are their true career aspirations and what steps would be needed to achieve them, rather than having them as just part of a wish list.

I once had a 26 year old MBA graduate, in an interview for the role as my executive assistant, tell me that his goal was to have my job within 5 years, but without any real concrete idea of what it would take to actually achieve this. As I was 55 at the time and had spent over 30 years getting into my current job, all I could do was wish him good luck, offer to give him a list of the 2000 or so people who would be well ahead of him for possible assassination, and suggest that he should come up with a serious plan of how he thought he could get there before sprouting such drivel in the hope that this would impress me.

Mentoring young, bright, intelligent, passionate people is a satisfying and fulfilling activity for any capable senior person whether a manager or an individual contributor, and I recommend it totally as a worthwhile use of time and energy. I have found that you can effectively mentor as many as 3 or 4 people at a time without it adversely affecting your own performance, particularly if you make your own selections, and have a proper plan to set expectations. For the would be protégé I believe that having a great mentor is an integral part of building a successful career, and you should not wait for HR but should pick someone you admire and trust and approach them with your request to occasionally seek their advice, rather than specifically spelling out that you want them as a mentor. If the chemistry is right, the mentor/protégé relationship will develop in time, and in a way that works for both of you.

Just remember that a lot of people have gone further than they thought they could, but only because someone else thought they could.



I have always believed that people join companies, but leave managers.
Surveys tell us that over 70% of corporate departures are because an employee was not able to build a working relationship with his immediate supervisor, which seems logical as one’s boss does totally control the major elements of your working life.

But there are times when even having a great boss is not enough. Here are some of the times when you should think about whether you are working for the right company.

1. When the politicians get promoted

There are companies where the ability to “play the game” becomes more important than just getting on with it and doing the job well. People who spend a lot of time telling everyone how hard they work usually aren’t, and those that tell everyone how good they are, are generally not, so when self-promotion is mistaken for a true indication of skill, it means that the politicians, rather than those who are the real contributors to company success, are getting recognition through managing upwards, which is a serious sign of a dysfunctional environment.

Author: Alaiche (own work); GDFL permission; via Wikimedia Commons

2. When senior execs don’t have integrity

Integrity is when what one believes is the same as what one says is the same as what one does. Talk is cheap, and anyone can tell the world that the most important element of business is, for example, the customer or the employee, but behaviour is the only measure of whether senior executives in a company actually live their beliefs. Lying is never acceptable. Kenneth Lay, Chairman and CEO of Enron, said just before its collapse “Our liquidity is fine. As a matter of fact, it’s better than fine. It’s strong.” Any company where reality and behaviour do not match rhetoric is not a worthwhile employer.

via Wikimedia Commons

3. When the customer is not a priority

You can survive for a while on clever marketing (“We are the dot in” didn’t save Sun Microsystems) or great technology (the Segway is sexy but used mainly only by lazy tourists), but ultimately if you disregard the needs of the customer you cannot have long term success. Modern communications enable customers to be widely heard, and the old maxim that a happy customer will tell 10 others while an angry customer will tell 100, now needs to be updated to the reality that an irate customer can tell tens and even hundreds of thousands.

4. When people are not treated as the major asset

Ultimately, people are the only sustainable competitive advantage, and companies that do not treat their own people with respect will never accord respect to anyone else. Companies that are serious about their employees ensure that they have a chance to develop and grow, and ensure that there are opportunities available for them to progress in their skills and their careers. If you can’t go off to work “with a song in your heart” you should find somewhere else where you can sing with passion and gusto.

5. When the bureaucrats take over

Doing the thing right should never get in the way of doing the right thing. Making sure that the right processes are in place ensures accuracy and consistency, but when the processes delay the ability to act, and get in the way of actually running the business it is a slippery slope. Data General in the 1980s had a reputation as a dynamic, fast moving upstart that could have given Digital Equipment, the much larger mini-computer market leader, some serious competition. The reality was that it was a centrally controlled, process-bound, bureaucratic, administrative nightmare. The only person in the company who could make any real business decisions of worth was Edson De Castro the founder and CEO, who ran everything from his office in Westborough, Massachusetts. Despite being four times larger, and despite DG having better “bang for the buck” offerings and a more aggressive sales force, Digital could hold them at bay just through being less bureaucratic and hence more responsive to competitive needs.

6. When the silo walls become impenetrable

When departments compete rather than co-operate and openly bad mouth each other it will be impossible to align strategies and therefore difficult to drive success. When Sales and Marketing can’t say anything good about each other, people complain about HR, Engineering whinge about the lack of financial data and everyone hates the IT Department it is time to accept that something is seriously amiss with both the CEO’s and senior executives’ abilities to build cohesive, supporting teams to effectively run the business.

7. When the majority of promotions are from outside

Great companies build their people and prepare them to be able to compete for vacant senior roles. One measure of a worthwhile employer is that at least 70-80% of promotions are made from internal candidates rather than mainly rushing to steal from a bunch of look-alikes at competitors. If there is not any effective succession-planning or mentoring process implemented, and little emphasis is placed on personal development, it is unlikely that it is a company with great advancement possibilities for internal candidates.

8. When pay for performance never quite rewards the best people

Nearly all companies tout their commitment to rewarding people for their contribution to the success of the enterprise, however that is defined, but few have true performance based reward systems in place beyond sales commission schemes. Reward systems need to go beyond the sales organisation, and beyond a token “bonus for all”, and should include rewards based on more than just monetary incentives. Effective reward programmes need to include individually tailored elements such as opportunities for overseas assignments and paid learning to be truly worthwhile.

My belief is that to be truly successful in whatever job you do, you need to do something you really love, working for a boss you respect and admire, in a company you can be proud of, and which values and rewards you as an individual. It may not be easy to find, but it is definitely worth the effort to try to do so.

As best-selling business author Harvey MacKay said

“Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”


“I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to become a vegetarian”

I have just spent two weeks with our older daughter, husband and two of our grand-daughters skiing at Beaver Creek, staying in a luxurious condominium owned by a close and generous friend.

Beaver Creek Beaver Creek is an upmarket resort in Colorado, USA, just down the road from Vail.

Author: Rudi Riet; via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst we have a fully equipped kitchen, we have been dining out a lot as this is one of the fun things to do as part of the holistic snow experience, from going to a fun diner “Route 6 Cafe” in Eagle-Vail to gourmet dining at“The 10th” in Vail and “Blue Plate” in Avon.

These are great eateries, but one main thing that they have in common is that there is hardly a vegetable in sight, beyond the occasional salad as a starter.

There is a massive consumption of fast foods in the US, and what I find interesting is that there seems to be a belief that if you preface a hamburger and fries, or steak and fries, with a small salad that this turns an unhealthy meal into a nutritious and healthy one. I have no question that if the starter is a salad then the average calorie count of the two courses drops compared to a buffalo wings or pizza starter, but the fact that this combination is now considered to be part of a balanced diet is as crazy as believing that you can counteract a Big Mac with a diet Coke.

Even in the expensive restaurants the main courses tend to be served with something like Piemontese potatoes with sour cream, macaroni cheese or spaghetti as the accompanying “vegetable”. Americans really do love Italian food especially if served as a “side salad”.

via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get me wrong, the food we have eaten here is really good, but as someone who had a bout of bowel cancer some 20 years ago, I am very conscious of the fact that a balanced, healthy diet must have a significant percentage of roughage or fibre. The attitude here in the US appears to be that you can eat anything that you want that is high in salt, sugar and fat, no matter how processed it is, as long as you supplement your diet with a daily intake of something like Metamucil, which is a bulk producing laxative and fibre supplement. I have nothing against psyllium, which is the major ingredient of Metamucil (although in the US this has to be sweetened to make it acceptable to the American palate), and I have been taking a small amount daily since my own hemi-colectomy in 1989, but not as a replacement for natural fibre from fruit, vegetables and grains, but as an additional part of my diet.

Author: Bastique (Cary Bass); via Wikimedia Commons

I questioned the head chef at one of the establishments about this lack of vegetables, and he initially pointed out to me that there was a vegetarian option on their menu, being tomato and basil linguini. On pushing a bit harder, he told me that customers felt cheated if a significant part of the plate was covered in vegetables, as this would be seen as being “mean” with the main ingredient, being the featured protein. Based on the fact that the main course plates are usually about the size of a Mack truck hubcap, I couldn’t buy the argument, so I sought out and chatted to the manager of the local food supermarket, who was very helpful. The sales of fruit and vegetables in his establishment represent less than 3% of his total sales, being heavily dominated by reheatable, and nukeable fast foods. The major criteria seemingly being speed and simplicity of preparation in movement from fridge/freezer to table.

By Salimfadhley; via Wikimedia Commons

The state of Iowa decided that they would try an intervention to increase the sale of fruit and vegetables by targeting 8 supermarkets over an 8 month period. (see the report at

From the report “The intervention consisted of: (1) one-page supermarket flyers that identified fruits and vegetables on sale, gave recipes and menu ideas for using sale foods, and gave a store coupon worth 50 cents toward the purchase of any fruit or vegetable; (2) store signage to identify fruits and vegetables featured on the flyer; and (3) consciousness raising activities such as food demonstrations and nutrition related signage.”
Whilst awareness of the flyers was 43%, discount coupon use was 36% and 18% had used one of the supplied recipes, sales of fruit and vegetables did not go up at all.

It appears that Americans just do not like fruit and vegetables.

The US department of agriculture estimate that less than 30% of Americans actually consume the recommended 5 daily serves of fruit and vegetables, and that even fewer people in their middle and later years adhere to this advice than they did two decades ago.
I find this fact particularly unusual based on the American obsession with dieting.
With about two-thirds of the American population being overweight and one-third considered obese, it is estimated that nearly 50% of women and 30% of men go on a diet every year.

I find it interesting that most Americans appear to be really worried about how much they eat between Christmas and New Year. It appears that they would be much better off worrying less about this specific time period, and becoming more concerned about what they eat between New Year and Christmas instead. Just replacing the spaghetti side dish with some freshly cooked vegetables would go some of the way in helping to improve their diet.

As comedian George Miller (1941-2003) said “The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.”


“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. “ Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) an American Founding Father.

Photo by cliff1066; via Wikimedia Commons

I was once asked my opinion about why it was that Americans and Australians were generally so optimistic about life whereas Europeans were basically pessimistic.

After some thought I replied that maybe it was because Australians and Americans had a relatively short history and therefore tended to look to the future rather than the past, making them more optimistic by nature. Europeans, who had such a long and dramatic history, tended to look at the past more often, making them generally much more pessimistic.

It got me wondering about the pros and cons of a long history to look back on, and why some people can be so affected by it.

I have come to realise that there is a difference between people who learn from history and those that become prisoners of their history, and that this can be as true for individuals as it can be for nations.
I have found this particularly interesting in France where some of the attitudes of the people are still coloured by their view of the French revolution of 1789. There seems to be this belief that anything that is hard fought for should never be surrendered, even if it has become outdated, which is one of the reasons that it is so hard to get the French to give up the 35 hour work week, even when it is obvious to all that the country can simply not afford it any more.

It is also one of the reasons that most times it is difficult to do successful brainstorming sessions with French groups, as it is hard to stop people from telling each other why their idea won’t work because, for example, it was tried and failed in the time of Charlemagne (742-814 AD), and so why would it succeed a mere 1270 years later.
In the same way people can get bogged down in what they have done in their past, and just keep creating the same set of conditions over and over again, supporting George Santayana’s statement that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Author: Historical and Public Figures Collection; NY Public Library Archives; via WIkimedia Commons

I have one friend who has been married 4 times to women who are not dissimilar, in that they were all very strong, self-centred women with their own minds, being characteristics that he finds incredibly attractive … for a limited amount of time. It has not been possible in the 30+ years that I have known him to convince him that despite four failures with these specific types of women, that he may actually be better off with a gentler, less driven partner in life. I have even suggested to him that rather than re-marrying he should, every five years, just find a woman that he really dislikes and buy her a house, as in the long run this would be significantly less painful and disruptive to his life.

I see this need to repeat history in many management people as well, who would prefer to believe that strategies that worked well for them in the past will continue to do so in the future.

However, it is very rare that this is the case, as everything around us keeps changing with an ever increasing rapidity, and what we did yesterday to become successful is unlikely to work in the same way today with changing market conditions, competitors, social standards and customer expectations.
It is the same challenge with management practices. For example, “Command and control” may have worked well in the early days of the industrial revolution, with time and motion experts analysing every move armed with their clip-boards, but will certainly not work today.

Similarly I see many managers who were very successful managing a small team, who have not changed their management style or focus when they were promoted to a position where they now needed to manage managers, which generally takes a very different approach. I had a colleague who moved very quickly from sales manager to national sales director to country managing director who continued to spend most of his time schmoozing and socialising with his sales reps, as that had always been successful for him in the past. It certainly did not work in his MD role, as he disregarded other parts of the ecosystem including customers.

Everything that we have done in the past has been instrumental in making us the person that we are today, and it is important that we retain and build on all the history that we accumulate over our lifetime, and that we gather as much learning and understanding of it all as is humanly possible. However, it is critical that we accept that this is all just part of the building of our individuality, and that there are many elements that we have to let go as we replace them with new ideas and new ways of doing things that are more suitable to the current environment. The older we get, and the more successful we become, the harder it is to do this as our history grows, and as the length of this history becomes a greater percentage of our life expectancy. The older and more senior that we become the more important it is that we do not let the past become too great a controlling influence on the way that we live our lives today.

Ultimately “Men are not prisoners of fate or history, but only prisoners of their own minds” Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) 32nd President of the US.

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; via Wikimedia Commons