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Mentoring is both an opportunity and a risk. It is largely a teaching process beginning with parental nurturing of children and continuing through the lifecycle of organizational and personal interrelationships. A key principle considered in this article is that mentoring is both an obligation and responsibility of leadership. Through mentoring, the wisdom and experience of the senior is passed to the junior. This includes passing on and discussing principles, traditions, shared values, quality, and lessons learned. Mentoring provides a framework to bring about a cultural change in the way we view the professional development of competent future leaders. The road to the top in most organizations today is an uphill and bumpy ride--you simply can't float to the top. Mentoring is a key way to help us get to our destination.
Mentoring is perhaps the most powerful method by which we can shape the future. The term has become a buzzword, often carelessly shot into the air along with a dust-cloud of other jargon from the unofficial, unwritten dictionary of those who consider themselves the cutting edge of modern leadership and management. But real mentoring, properly understood, is much more than just another clipping from last week's Dilbert cartoon. Without an in-depth study of mentoring, the capacity of an individual to mentor is limited to the horizons of their own experience. Thus, mentoring is literally a time machine that allows us to have a profound influence many years beyond today's hubbub and humdrum. And, it is safe to say that, just as sure as you are related to your grandfather, mentoring can make a significant difference in the lives of people.
A mentor is a trusted advisor, teacher, counselor, friend, and/or parent, older and more senior than the person he or she helps. A mentor is there when you need them. Mentoring is an ongoing process. In organizations, it can apply to all leaders and supervisors who are responsible for getting their work done through other people. The individual who is assisted by a mentor is usually called a protege--in essence, a student or pupil who learns from the mentor. The process by which one person aids another in this type of relationship is known as "mentoring." Regardless of how we choose to define it, mentoring--if properly conducted--can have a most positive change in the life, attitudes, and behavior of the protege But what does this really mean? Does mentoring differ in any way from teaching, parenting, or being a friend?
This article attempts to answer these important questions in a practical way that will enable people to implement the principles of mentoring in everyday life. If we comprehend the principles essential to mentoring, we will have in our grasp the tool kit that can make our time machine work. On balance, this article attempts to demystify the phenomenon of mentoring by cutting through buzzwords and misconceptions to communicate a workable understanding of mentoring and its practical implementation.
The Mentoring Process
It may be a useful mnemonic and analytical device to treat the term mentoring as if it were an acronym. The various aspects of effective mentoring, expressed as verbs, can be understood as corresponding to the letters in the word as follows:
We will discuss each of the components in turn and, in so doing, will develop a working understanding of what it means to be a mentor.
An effective mentor must lead by example. When the mentor serves as a real-world role model for the protege, the cliche that "actions speak louder than words" comes to life. Mentoring requires significant amounts of time for mentor and protege to be in close proximity. The protege is always observing and learning from the mentor. The opportunity to see how the mentor actually deals with a variety of situations is an important part of the process because it takes things from the abstract, conceptual level to the realm of practical, pragmatic application.
A mentor must behave at all times, both publicly and privately, as if the protege were the mentor's shadow. Part of the mentoring process is the act of demonstrating for the protege as he or she "shadows" the mentor the proper methods, techniques, practices, and procedures that are part of the way the enterprise functions. More than this, though, is the need for the mentor to show the protege how a mature professional deals with various challenges and opportunities. A mentor should be a model of composure, dignity, integrity, and professionalism, under all manner of conditions. A protege who shadows such a role model will eventually come to understand, at a deep level, what he or she must be and do. A successful protege is one who is willing to listen, observe, learn, and grow from the example of another.
An outstanding mentor who personified the principle of modeling ideal behavior was the great baseball player and Hall of Famer, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. It may be hard to believe for people who grew up after the dawning of the Civil Rights movement, but until 1947 almost all "major league" professional sports in America were completely closed to African-Americans. No matter how talented, even the best African-American athletes could never play in the all-white professional leagues. But in 1947, Jackie Robinson bravely broke the "color barrier" and became a major league baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was a very tough challenge for Robinson. He had to overcome bitter, angry resistance and resentment from some of his own teammates, let alone opposing players, managers, and owners. He was repeatedly subjected to the most vile racial slurs, obscenities, and insults. Players would intentionally try to injure him with their spiked shoes as they slid into him at his position at second base. In some cities, he could not eat in the same restaurants as his teammates, nor sleep in the same hotels. It was a hard, lonely struggle for this young man-the one and only African-American in all of major league baseball. But Jackie Robinson was prepared. He understood and applied the four P's: preparation prevents poor performance.
Dodgers owner Branch Rickey had met with Robinson prior to the season to discuss the risks they were both taking and the difficulties they were certain to encounter. They agreed that it was crucial for Robinson not to sink to the level of his attackers. Bigots would be circling constantly like vultures, all too eager to pounce on any excuse to find Robinson somehow "unfit" for the major leagues. In their view, if Robinson proved unfit, then by extension so did all other African-Americans. Jackie Robinson represented an entire race, and he would be under intense scrutiny at all times. The pressure was crushing and unrelenting, but Robinson never let it beat him.
Every day, he played all-star caliber baseball on the field. He also conducted himself like the consummate professional and gentleman he was, both on and off the field. He carried himself with quiet dignity notwithstanding the most brutal indignities thrown at him. The only way he fought back was by playing baseball with an unsurpassed degree of dedication, drive, energy, and determination, game after game. In so doing, he gradually won the grudging respect of many former enemies, and demonstrated for countless other African-Americans that there was hope for them too. To this day, he remains a shining role model for everyone who must deal with racism and discrimination of whatever variety.
In time, Jackie personally mentored other African-American baseball players who entered the major leagues through the doors he had opened, including teammates Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. He told them what they needed to know, but more importantly, he showed them. His example proved to them, on a daily basis, what was needed to succeed. Because of his influence, it was easier for them and for everyone else who came later. He was the model for them to emulate, personally and professionally. That is what mentors do.
Clearly, lessons of this type do not lend themselves to a quick one-time demonstration. This is not an easy, by-the-numbers, single-shot process. A person becomes a mentor and a role model through persistent effort and interaction with the protege over a considerable period of time. It may be that a mentor can teach the basics of a task at hand fairly quickly, but the deeper lessons that distinguish mentoring from simply teaching or training require prolonged involvement. You cannot model optimal …