The power and quality of mentors can be seen in many professions. We see it in music and art. We see it also in medicine. For example, Patch Adams is a community doctor that had a remarkable ability to empathize with his patients. A movie was made about him starring Robin Williams. A core piece of his practice was emphasizing the importance of humor to healing. Laughter, to Adams, was and is the best medicine. His ability to connect to patients and make positive contributions to health outcomes drew others to him. He is credited for inspiring many others to adopt his approach to medicine. He’s taken the time to mentor and share his wisdom with others extending his reach beyond himself.
In the NFL, the impact of others is seen through what’s known as a coaching tree. Similar to when you were in school and you had to draw your family tree to illustrate from where you came. You would detail your siblings besides you, your parents above you, and each of your grand parents above them. Doing so illustrates that you are a product of many over decades. A coaching tree is like an upside down family tree and reflects the influence of a coach on others. How many have gone on to take leadership roles in other organizations after having spent time being exposed to the skillset of the coach at the top of the tree. If a coach worked for at least a season with someone and then goes on to work at a higher level elsewhere, they’re allocated as a branch on the former boss’s coaching tree. Most active coaches would be on someone else’s tree. If nothing else, an active coach is part of the organizational chart of their current employer and reflect a branch of their current head coach. Apparently, in the late 90’s someone dug into the background of as many of the head coaches of NFL teams as they could. They uncovered that half of the league’s coaches had, at one time or another, worked for either Bill Walsh in San Francisco or Tom Landry in Dallas. Walsh and Landry were common threads for most of the coaches in the league. Of the 15 head coaches that had developed under the tutelage of either Walsh or Landry, four of them had won super-bowls. Landry and Walsh had mentored many into leadership roles. Their influence and philosophies spread throughout the league.
The late actor, Robert Allen, believed that mentors were essential to developing excellence. He noted, “Study anyone who’s great, and you’ll find that they apprenticed to a master, or several masters. Therefore, if you want to achieve greatness, renown, and superlative success, you must apprentice to a master.” Mike Murdock echoes Allen’s sentiment writing in The Leadership Secrets of Jesus that we should, “Pay any price to stay in the presence of extraordinary people.” The main reason to be mindful of mentors is that they offer a shortcut to progress. Canfield notes in The Success Principles that “Success leaves clues.” Therefore, Canfield asks, “Why not take advantage of all the wisdom and experience that already exists by finding a mentor who has already been down the road you are traveling?” It is the existing experience and understanding of a domain or of life in general that we’re seeking to extract from someone that has lived life well that we’re after.
In The Element, the late Ken Robinson notes how “mentors can provide a window into a new world.” He introduces details of a study from 2004 where over a thousand youth were each paired with a volunteer from the Big Brothers and Sisters of America organization. Researchers uncovered that those that were mentored reflected better academic performance. They engaged more in class, completed homework, and achieved higher marks on tests than similar students without the benefit of a mentoring experience. Moreover, those mentored had higher attendance coupled with lower discipline. Mentoring mattered. The mentors weren’t impressive, world-class experts. They were mere peers. They were interested and interesting individuals just a few years ahead in life of those they were supporting. The positive interest in the mentee’s existence may have been the spark that lit the fires of their personal improvement. Robinson wrote Mentors can “turn a light on to a new world or fan the flames of interest for others.”
Robinson suggested that mentors can serve four different roles: recognition, encouragement, facilitating, and stretching.
Recognition. Simply being seen and appreciated may be motivating to someone to apply themselves. The feeling of being validated and appreciated by others seems to be an almost universal human need. We want to be recognized, to feel seen. Where a mentor provides this to us, we become inspired to engage. Encouragement. Similarly, hearing a positive word from a peer helps us develop self-belief. Our sights may be lifted from the words of others. Robinson wrote, “Mentors lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them. They stand by to remind us of the skills we already possess and what we can achieve if we continue to work hard.” A third function of mentors is facilitating. The traditionally understood role of a mentor is guidance and direction. Robinson noted, “Mentors can help lead us forward by offering us advice and techniques, paving the way for us, and even allowing us to falter a bit while standing by to help us recover and learn from our mistakes.” The distance to our destination is decreased and we benefit from the guidance offered from those that have walked our path before us. The fourth role is stretching. Similar to the benefit of encouragement, caring mentors invite us to see and travel further. Robinson suggested, “Effective mentors push us past what we see as our limits. Much as they don’t allow us to succumb to self-doubt, they also prevent us from doing less with our lives than we can. A true mentor reminds us that our goal should never be to be ‘average’ at our pursuits.” Mentors aren’t heroes. Heroes may also be aspirational, but they are remote, distant, and inaccessible. Mentors are personal. They are a guide by your side encouraging you to strive towards excellence.
We don’t have to sit around and wait to meet a mentor. We can proactively pursue those from who we would like to learn. Seneca, over two thousand years ago, writes in On the Brevity of Life, “We like to say that we don’t get to choose our parents, that they were given by chance—yet, we can truly choose whose children we’d like to be.” Musical agent, Scooter Braun, has identified and nurtured several recent talents. He’s worked with both Kanye West and Justin Beiber. He has seen firsthand the power of peers in being a positive influence. Mentors don’t need to be gray-haired sages. Braun offers, “The mistake of youth is thinking that the mentors you need are older than you. That you should work on getting in a room with some powerful person because that’s going to change your life. It’s not true. What changes your life is your peers… The people you rise up with. They’re your power base. Not the person who’s already done it.” Mentors don’t need to be the highest performer of your field. It’s not just Olympic champions and PhD’s that we can learn from. As the study involving the Big Brothers and Sisters of America organization showed, mentors can be our peers, those much closer to us.
Not only are we surrounded by potential mentors, we can become mentors to others. Consciously connecting new hires to a peer within your organization is a way to bolster your onboarding process. The norm in too many organizations with respect to onboarding new staff is a generic, high level orientation coupled with cutting the new team member loose to flounder on their own. The new hire is left to learn from scratch what others already know. Turnover of staff within the first year can be higher than staff that has been with an organization for longer periods. The first year is a period of transition. New staff are looking to match their expectations of the job with the organization. Do they fit? Is there a match? Do they feel supported? Do they see the opportunity as they thought they would? The more supported the transition, the more likely the new team member is to feel a valued member of the team.
The transition to becoming a contributing member of the team can be both accelerated and more engaging where the new employee is paired with someone that already knows the ropes. Much of our organizational culture lies in the unwritten way things are done. Standardized orientations don’t cover these types of areas. It is through conversations with those that have been around the block that these lessons are learned. Yes, an orientation can relay mission statements and values. However, how these translate into actual activities of the organization are best learned through watching and listening to those in the organization. Moreover, pairing a new hire with an existing employee smooths the transition and helps the new hire feel included. Camaraderie is enhanced as the new team member feels a part of the team resulting in enhanced employee engagement and retention during what can otherwise be stressful circumstances.
Like anything, an intentional approach to mentoring incoming staff is more likely to succeed than one that is ad hoc. Do you have a pool of existing staff that reflect the values or the organization and possess institutional knowledge? Of these, are there some that are interested in supporting new staff? Seek to build structure around your mentoring program for onboarding. Encourage those that are willing to lead a program to take notes about what is shared and what types of questions new hires have. Build a base of knowledge that can help future staff smooth the initial entrance for new hires. Provide your prospective mentor with a list of things to introduce. Maybe some of these are things traditionally done by HR but can be done more effectively by peers participating directly in these processes. Afford your mentor a budget to take their mentee out to lunch or coffee a couple of times a month over their first few months. Check in after a few months with both the mentor and mentee and gauge their experience. Was it worthwhile? Did the new team member feel welcomed as a result of the program? Did the mentor take pride in helping to introduce the new team member to the organization? Was enough time allocated to the program? Did either participant feel overstretched? Would the person who was mentored like to become a mentor to future employees as a result of this experience?
Here are some additional ways that a mentor can help new recruits ease the transition to a new organization. Mentors can proactively introduce their mentee to team members within one’s department. Mentors can communicate daily, weekly, monthly, annual work calendar. What are typical tasks? What is schedule of meetings? What are expectations of meetings? What are the little details they wish someone would have told them when they started? What things weren’t communicated by HR which are useful to how one’s real work day flows? Where does one find things like office supplies? How does one source and find expense reports? How is performance management handled in your department? What sideshows and drama are going on behind the scenes in the organization? It is this type of information that helps a new hire understand the pulse and rhythm of the organization that helps them to adopt certain practices so they can adapt and fit in which aren’t part of typical HR driven onboarding processes.
In essence, mentors can be found in all age groups and levels of the organization. They can be peers, seniors, and juniors. The value of a mentor is less driven by age and more by value. It is the skillset, knowledge, and experience that can be shared by one with another that is the core objective of encouraging mentoring within an organization. Mentoring is useful where transmission of technique and tactics from one to another raises the skill level of the entire organization. Yes, it can help with onboarding and connecting new recruits to the corporation. New staff can feel recognized and encouraged with regular contact and support from a mentor. Moreover, their learning and contributions can be facilitated making them more useful to the organization sooner thanks to insights offered from a mentor. Consider making mentoring an arrow in your organization’s management quiver.