I suppose I’ve had mentors over the course of my professional career. Sometimes I knew it and sometimes I didn’t. On some occasions, my ignorance was due to appreciation – I was just glad to get a few pointers. On other occasions, my ignorance was founded – the advice I received just left me confused.
In the February 2017 issue of HBR, Anthony Tjan provides four key tenets to the responsibilities of mentors:
- Put the relationship before the mentorship
- Focus on character rather than competence
- Shout loudly with your optimism, and keep quiet with your cynicism
- Be more loyal to your mentee than you are to your company
Relationships, character, optimism, and loyalty – all admirable values. I believe Tjan got it right: values lie at the root of quality mentorship.
When I think about my mentors throughout the course of my career, the best I’ve had were in it for the long haul. They never once put a time limit on the advice they gave me or made me feel like they needed to send me on my way. We discussed my development with optimism and strategic purpose and I always walked away from the conversations feeling energized about the future.
I take that back. Energized is an understatement. I was ready to run through walls! And in my younger years I often did, taking on every whisper of “it can’t be done” from the naysayers like a challenge to the honor of my mentor. Our relationship meant something to me and I refused to sway from the path my mentor and I had defined. He believed in me, and that’s all I needed. I had no doubt that I could tap into the reservoir of character, optimism, and loyalty fueled by the encouragement of my mentor.
On every occasion, my mentor was not my supervisor. And for good reason. My supervisors were my coaches. While leaders I chose as mentors filled my reservoir with positive aspirations, coaches corrected misaligned performance. My supervisors helped – mainly by helping me see my flaws. It was the feedback I needed to correct errant performance. Sometimes, when the feedback stung, they would turn their back and let me bask in my failure for a bit to ensure I didn’t forget the lesson. It was short term and usually had minimal impact on my optimism. They would comment about the importance of the “mentorship” they provided, sometimes even bragging to others about the time they spent “mentoring” me. I recall thinking to myself, “I never knew you were my mentor.”
The difference with my mentors is that they stayed with me and never turned their back. Oftentimes guiding me with words of encouragement when I was fumbling around in the dark. Their loyalty was to my future first, and to our organization second. They encouraged me to consider my family above all else before I left them behind in pursuit of misplaced loyalties.
John Singer Sargent’s famous painting, and the image that accompanies this blog, entitled “Gassed,” depicts a row of blind men being led by a medic who is guiding their path as they fumble through a sea of wounded men. The medic provides guidance, encouragement, and stays with them. He is selflessly loyal. They’re lost without him.
Does your organization’s executive team throw around the word mentorship like loose change? Do they tell the leaders within your organization to “coach” and “mentor” their direct reports? Why do they want coaches and mentors, and do they know the difference? Mentorship programs are key to the long-term health of an organization, particularly organizations with an eye on growing their talent to succeed them. Not only will they grow their successors, but they will remove barriers to success. The inherent positive relationship associated with mentorship teaches skills that drive behavioral change. While a coach will correct performance with technical skills, a mentor will drive behavioral change, gently developing advanced skills nurtured over time.
Consider this: 90% of companies do not feel comfortable with their succession programs, and 93% of companies do not have strong programs to build next leaders. As companies strive to survive the silver tsunami that is occurring in today’s 21st-century workforce they must contemplate one question: how will they transfer knowledge gained over years of experience? Have they emphasized the role of mentors in creating the culture they desire?
Coaches alone are not going to help companies through the challenges of succession. When companies reflect on their journey to greatness, as the mentored run through walls, they will know that it took a unique mixture of nurturing and optimism to get there. They will know that it was energy fueled by mentors.