Management, Strategy and Operations

Mentoring On a Two-Way Street

rr_blog_hed_mentoringRecently, word reached me that an old friend, colleague and an important mentor early in my career, had died. Aside from an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality it made me wonder whether the art of mentoring is becoming as obsolete as VCRs or if we’re thinking about it in the wrong way.

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned a lot from companies, people, places and situations. But in reality, there were only two people I would consider mentors—people who had that rare combination of talent, humility, confidence, patience and foresight.

These were people who might have interviewed the oil minister of Kuwait in the morning, David Rockefeller of Chase bank in the afternoon, were on a first name basis with everyone in retailing and still made time to teach an inexperienced reporter how to read a balance sheet, structure an article and separate facts from BS. To this day, the latter is one of the most valuable business skills I’ve learned.

Informal Settings

Back then, mentoring was not a corporately mandated program that took place once in a while in a meeting room or when upper management was watching. It was just a normal everyday thing. Sometimes in an office or bullpen, other times after work at the old Cedar Tavern, amidst the shadows of such journalistic giants as H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin.

My mentors, were largely nurturers by nature, did so out of a sense of purpose or for the greater good and to insure the company had a deep bench to call on in the future. Others were more pontificators than mentors.

Today, mentorship is more important than ever. I’ll go even further and say this transfer of knowledge is an essential survival tool. For some companies and executives it’s a calling. It’s not just about a changing of the guard—passing of the baton from old to young. It’s about sharing experience and information without worrying that the one you’re mentoring is trying to steal your job.

However, the process is not what it once was. Because of technology and the rise of the multi-generational workforce, mentoring has become a two-way street. It’s been called “reverse mentoring” and has been adopted by some Fortune 500 companies like General Electric, Procter & Gamble and at consultants like Deloitte and PwC. It is changing traditional roles, with millennials helping older or veteran employees—right up to the CEO—get a handle on current and developing technology, the implications and impact of social media and new marketing and merchandising methods that allow for rapid changes in consumer demand.

Learning Curve

Younger workers may be lacking some “soft skills” like being able to communicate clearly on a person-to-person basis and not just in 144-character increments or within the confines of a blog or email. Or, they may have yet to master the simple concept of just getting along with people.

However, these younger workers don’t just use technology. They were born into it. It’s part of their DNA. They understand better than anyone its power and use and should be able to convey this enthusiasm to older workers who, while veteran thought leaders, sometimes hold technology at arm’s length.

Conversely, if a company wants to hold onto younger workers, who will make up more than 50 percent of the nation’s workforce by 2020 and whose ideas of loyalty and work-life balance may differ from their own, upper management has to stop thinking of mentoring in terms of parenting skills. There may be a 25+ year age gap between mentors and mentees. But they are not your children. They are colleagues with skillsets of their own whose knowledge and opinions command respect and attention.

Clearly, this is not going to sit well with some senior executives who can often act like children themselves. But as my kindergarten teacher told us “you have to learn how to work and play well with others.” Moreover, studies have shown that those people who take on a mentorship role have greater job satisfaction and loyalty to their company.

Nine-Step Program

So, what constitutes an effective mentoring program? First, recognize that it’s a business need not a fad to just fancy up your Twitter feed or Facebook page. There are some simple and easy steps to take.

  1. Determine the goals for any mentoring program and what your company wants to get out it. Like anything in life, you have to identify and move toward your objective.
  2. Make sure everyone in the organization knows that the mentoring program is accessible.
  3. Determine who in your company is best suited for the role of mentor. They should be accomplished and talented. But this is not about an ego boost or adding a line to the resume, you want people who sincerely want to help others and perhaps learn a little something in the process.
  4. Initially, avoid formal places like boardrooms or the mentor’s own office. Start the program out in a casual setting like an outside retreat, dinner or just over a cup of coffee to get things started.
  5. Develop a set of training or mentoring materials and offer it online as well as in book or pamphlet form and take the opportunity to reiterate the company’s long-term goals and the important role people play.
  6. Get to know the mentees specific goals. As I said this is not a one-way street on any level.
  7. Instill a sense of collaboration so older workers don’t feel they are being dominated by younger ones—and vice versa.
  8. When you pair up people make sure they get along and don’t try to force a relationship between mentors and mentees. If they like and respect each other, they’ll stay together longer.
  9. Change the mindset of all involved from talking to listening. Don’t try to intimate people by thinking that mentoring is a matter of giving lectures.

I leave you with this thought by Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

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