Mentoring That Lasts

Several years ago, my graduate school mentor was talking to me about family trees, and the conversation moved to academic ones. We talked about some people in the field, who their mentors were and how these branches formed different thought areas. I’m sure the exercise can be done in any area of study (it’s been done extensively in mathematics) and in the business world as well.

We’ve all had mentors and there is a good deal of research done on what makes a good one (support from co-workers and supervisors is important). Protêgês do benefit in terms of psychological health and job performance when they are mentored, though not the extent you would think. Many companies have formalized mentorship programs, often to improve the promotability of women and racial minorities and/or to increase employee engagement. The data shows that the process is good for the mentor as well. These relationships tend to be long lasting, even past the initial setting. In fact, you’re probably thinking of a mentor or a protêgê right now.

This all came together when I read a New York Times interview with Ilene Gordon, C.E.O. of Ingredion (a company that turns raw materials into ingredients for the food, beverage and other industries) on the importance of mentors. She provides an example of how her mentor helped her early in her career by challenging her to test out her strategies and analyses by applying them while running a business. It’s clear that the lessons she learned from him are still with her some 30 years later.

Now, she provides her high potentials with opportunities to be in front of her board. Interestingly, she gives them 3 minutes to talk about themselves, adversity they are facing and how they bring value to the company. That’s a lot for 3 minutes! I would think that this exposure leads to some of these managers finding mentors (and probably doing some great networking among themselves). It is an interesting approach as the potential mentors have a chance to identify someone in the group who reminds them of themselves at that particular career stage.

Gordon returns to this theme when asked about interviewing. She asks candidates who their mentors were to get a sense of the person’s knowledge lineage with the idea being the person’s thought process is highly influenced by them.

My concern here is that this approach puts someone in a thought box and has a bias against original thinking. But it does show the importance of what we learn from mentors and how we are perceived differently based on who they were. Whether that’s considered baggage or a seal of approval is in the eye of the beholder.

For companies considering mentoring programs, they should understand that when protêgês leave they are essentially spreading the brand. A great example here is when Jack Welch’s reports would leave and get snapped up immediately, with the hope they could bring the "GE Way" with them.

Whether it’s through the opportunities it provides or how people think of us, mentoring relationships stay with us far longer than when we actually interact with the person.