The Case for Mentorship

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

The Case for Mentorship

OK, let me get the brag out of the way first. 

I attended the Ryder Cup last month and could write for a long time about both Rome, where the event took place, and the competition. Even if you do not play golf, the Ryder Cup — a biennial men’s tournament between teams from the U.S. and Europe — is a master class in team dynamics, leadership and strategy. 

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But one issue that gets little attention is the mentoring of young athletes in a high-stakes, high-visibility competition that operates in a fundamentally different way from the PGA Tour. (If you don’t play golf, a quick web search for “match play vs. stroke play” will help you understand the impact on even the most talented competitors.)

Mentoring is generally not a formal position in the chain of command in organizations. More like an uncle or aunt, a mentor is someone more experienced who can be a guide, advise, advocate and be a thinking partner, but — and this is important — is not directly accountable for performance. 

The term mentor comes from the myth of Ulysses, who must lead his men to the distant shores of Troy for war. Before he leaves, he asks his old teacher Mentor to “be as a father to my son.” Mentor becomes teacher, adviser, confidant and advocate to Ulysses’ son, Telemachus. “As a father” connotes an uncle-like relationship. 

Why Mentors?

Even if you don’t follow golf, you might recognize names on the Ryder Cup team rosters. They represent the top tier of golf talent and competitive focus in the U.S. and Europe. 

So if they’re the best, why do they need mentors? The answer applies to your top talent and even to new employees: A mentor has the experience to help less experienced or less objective employees understand the culture, the unofficial rules, the strategies and how things get done at your business.  

Assigning mentors to younger leaders helps focus their development. An internal mentor operates somewhere between a direct manager and a coach. A mentor should not have direct managerial oversight or even direct-line skip-level supervision. While an executive can learn to coach younger talent, they still retain authority. But a leader at a similar or even more senior level to the boss can listen and advise with different ears. A mentor might occasionally also intervene, lending some of their gravitas and organizational credibility to help overcome a challenge.

The Rewards

Setting up a mentoring program inside a company is not a major challenge or expense. Some minimal training and support for those who are actively mentoring is a good idea, as well as a matching process that prevents conflicts of interest and manipulation. And the rewards can be significant in terms of developing younger and new talent and increasing their impact and effectiveness.  

Significant wisdom and experience can be found in the executive ranks of most companies, and mentoring is a powerful way to tap that capacity for the development and retention of your valuable younger executives. 

It also acts as a vehicle for sustaining culture and providing a safe venue for avoiding legal and compliance issues.

I. Barry Goldberg is a credentialed executive and leadership coach and coach educator with a global client base.