I lost two people who were very, very important to me last fall. They had both been my mentors. The first was my mom who has been my personal mentor throughout my life. She guided me from birth and sacrificed enormously on my behalf. There is absolutely no doubt I would have never accomplished the things I have done without her wise counsel and assistance.
The second was a senior officer who took me “under his wing” when I was a young cadet at West Point. Don was a professional mentor I could always turn to for guidance and counsel specifically about my military career. He also provided critical advice and analysis for many of the national security issues that I became involved in while working in the Pentagon, National Security Council Staff in the White House, and other efforts that I have been involved in since retiring from the military. I always knew that he was only a phone call away despite the fact that we were not frequently assigned to the same location and might not see each other for several years. I could always call him day-or-night to seek his advice and assistance.
But what exactly is “mentoring” and why is it important? Mentoring has been described as a dynamic relationship in which a more experienced person (the mentor) acts as a guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor of a less experienced person (the mentee). It is based on several distinct elements including:
Reciprocity, collegiality, authenticity, and mutuality.
Intentional role modeling
A “safe harbor” for self-exploration (disclosure)
Transformation particularly of the mentee’s professional identity.
A connection that endures.
The Harvard Business Review conducted a survey of 1,250 top executives as listed in The Wall Street Journal. It discovered that 65 percent had at least one important mentor. Furthermore, the analysis suggested that executives with mentors had higher salaries, more rapid promotions, greater achievement of career objectives, and higher overall job AND life satisfaction. It has also been discovered that organizations with a culture of mentorship have lower attrition rates.
Through this relationship, mentees seek better job performance, which may include greater involvement in professional organizations. They also want help with networking, job opportunities, and finding greater satisfaction in the organization they are part of. Over time they will likely want assistance in achieving a stronger sense of professional identity, more productivity, and having a greater impact.
I would argue that having a mentor and eventually becoming a mentor is particularly important for those who are members of one of the following professions: the military, medicine, education, the clergy, or law enforcement (lawyers, judges, and police). Such occupations are focused on the continued development of the abstract knowledge associated with the profession and the critical service it provides society. Consequently, the development of the next generation in the profession is a critical requirement. I was amazed how quickly I found other younger officers seeking my advice and counsel as I progressed through my career, and I am confident that most teachers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, and policemen have had the same experience.
Effective mentors must first and foremost take the time to get to know the mentee. Spend the time to learn their strengths and weaknesses as well as their goals. In doing so the mentor must “affirm” the path the mentee is taking while gently shaping as well as redirecting them away from unrealistic aspirations. The mentor is both a teacher and a coach. He or she must look for “teaching moments” during their time with the mentee and if working in the same organization demystify the “system” for the mentee while providing the “lay of the land”. The mentor must be prepared to offer counsel in difficulty times but challenge the mentee in order to stimulate their growth. When appropriate, the mentor should actively sponsor the mentee and hopefully match opportunities with their “dreams”. This may also be part of pointing out milestones and successes to the mentee while helping them to objectively step back and appreciate their own progress. Finally, an effective mentor has to be humble and have patience. He or she must be open to feedback particularly as the mentee matures. Nobody wants a “perfect” mentor. Humble mentors model with their own fallibility. Important qualities for effective mentors include both patience and good emotional intelligence.
Good leaders are not only effective mentors but also seek to create a mentoring culture in their organization. This is difficult to do but essential nonetheless. Leaders must continually stress its importance and how it is closely related to the organization’s mission, vision, and values. It may also require not only traditional mentoring but also peer and team mentorship. An effective program will seek to select mentors carefully, train/support them, prepare mentees, and assess/reward mentors for their efforts. It should also be a topic during annual performance review discussions, and many organizations conduct annual surveys in order to ascertain the level of satisfaction and experience with mentoring. Finally, it should be part of all exit interviews when a member of the organization is departing.
Having mentors was critical in my personal and professional development. Being a mentor is crucial to the success of any organization and, I would argue, a professional responsibility. An expert on mentoring described it as “the seal of approval.” He further observed, “to have a mentor is to be among the blessed. Not to have a mentor is to be damned to eternal oblivion or at least to a mid-level status.”
Furthermore, we would all be wise to remember the words of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson:
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much;
Who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has left the world better than he found it;
Who has looked for the best in others and given the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration,
Whose memory is a benediction.
Stevenson was clearly describing a mentor. I know because having mentors has been invaluable to me, and I only hope that I have also fulfilled my responsibility of being a mentor to others along the way.