February 27, 2012 9 Comments
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
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.
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.
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.
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.