What makes a good mentor? Does mentoring still play an important role in today’s corporate world? What impact do mentors have on an individual’s career? We asked a panel composed of members of the AMA community to share their thoughts on this and other mentoring topics in this month’s edition of Voices from the Front
. Our participants included Ann, an HR professional; Tom, a manager in the IT field; Jack, a sales professional; and Barry, a manager at an energy company. (Panelists' true names are withheld.) Each had been both a protege of a mentor and a mentor themselves. They spoke candidly about what mentoring means to them. Question
: Talk a little about a mentor that you’ve had in your career, and the impact they had on your career
Jack: I had a mentor that I met in my early 20s with whom I ended up having a lifelong relationship. He taught me a lot about life in general and about principles to live by. As I hit roadblocks in my career, he would help by offering advice and suggestions, but not judging. We discussed what it took to succeed. The principals from those conversations I replay in my head over and over again. He passed away recently, but it’s as if he’s still with me everyday.
Barry: I’ve had two mentors in the workplace. One was right after I got out of college and took a job as a computer operator for a large insurance company, where I worked with a lot of other recent college graduates. The manager of the computer center became almost like a father to us. We were all single, we were all in our early twenties, and he taught us not only how to behave in the workplace, but how to take care of ourselves outside of work. I remember one night, one of our team members didn’t show up for work, which was unusual for him. Our manager went out looking for him, even though it was late at night, and as it turned out the guy had had an automobile accident.
I had one other manager who was my manager for 10 years. He really taught me how to survive in the corporate environment. We worked for a large chemical manufacturing company with 44,000 employees, and he taught me how to survive and progress in my career. They both were very giving people. Although the former had a kind of military way, you still knew he cared. Q: Do you think those kinds of really profound, life-changing mentoring relationships still play a big role in today’s corporate world?
Barry: Absolutely not. Our HR department has tried to institute a buddy system for new employees, but it’s not an adequate substitute for mentoring.
Tom: I agree. Half the problem is that the person has to want to be mentored, and no one seems to want to develop that relationship anymore. I think it’s very difficult today; it’s almost resented. You have people thinking that you’re intruding on their lives because you’re not telling them what they want to hear. We’re in an instant gratification world. It’s like investors. If I buy a stock and it doesn’t go up in 20 minutes, it’s the end of the world. Nobody has a long-range view on anything.
Ann: Mentoring isn’t something that can be mandated by the organization. It has to evolve naturally. You need to have a relationship to have that desire to give. If something’s forced on you, you’re going to give to some extent, but if it’s the true mentoring relationship, you do it because of your desire to want that person to succeed in life in general. It’s got to get beyond just the business itself, otherwise it’s just managing the person.
Barry: I’m currently mentoring two individuals as part of a formal mentoring program my company just instituted. Previous to that, however, I had a young man who came to me, and on an informal basis, I became his mentor. That relationship became very deep and very lasting—I actually introduced him to his fiancée, who had also come to me to strike up a mentoring relationship. That young man has progressed through his career and is now senior-level, and he’s become a mentor to my own grandson. The two individuals I have now, through the formal program, it’s more on a professional level—indoctrinating them into the company’s culture, so to speak.
The bottom line is, the formal process isn’t as good as the informal process. Mentoring builds mentors, managing doesn’t build mentors.
Q: What makes a good mentor?
Tom: I think it’s a willingness to take risks. People tend to think you’re a boss and you’ve got all the answers. As a mentor, you have to reveal things about yourself that might undermine your position as an authority figure. You have to talk about mistakes you’ve made. It’s really difficult. I wouldn’t do it with a stranger, but I don’t think my staff are strangers.
Q: In acting as a mentor, what was your purpose?
Jack: In my situation, it’s really to treat people the way I was treated by the mentor I had. That’s the only thing that drives my participation. I have no particular goal in mind other than to give back what was given to me.
The best mentors don’t just help us improve our performance at work, they help us become better people, as attested by the stories of our panelists.
One quick note about the Voices from the Front series. As a journalist, I’ve been privileged to interview some of the leading experts in the business community. While it’s always valuable to hear what the gurus think, I’d have to say that some of the most interesting stories and shrewd business insights that I’ve ever heard have come not from a best-selling author, but from the co-worker in the next office or the person I happen to strike up a conversation with in the elevator. That would make a great story, I’ve often thought to myself after one of these encounters. Voices from the Front is an attempt to provide a forum for those fascinating stories and the casual wisdom that surrounds us, unnoticed, every day. Already I’ve been amazed and inspired by the insights of the people I’ve interviewed. I hope you will be too.
Editor, Leader’s Edge