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Never Too Late To Learn

Mentoring is the success mantra for managers, young or old

Mentoring has been an integral part of learning in the Orient for ages. Whether those be scriptures, governance (raj dharma), the art of war, performing arts like music and dance, or principles of business and commerce, devoted pupils have attained knowledge of diverse subjects at the feet of great masters. The one-to-one guru-shishya parampara (tradition) has been and, to some extent, still continues to be the edifice of our educational psyche and heritage.

The business education system has undergone a paradigm change since the time the guru-shishya system reigned supreme. One-to-one teaching is no longer feasible in these times at least in the initial stages like graduation and post-graduation. But strangely enough, it is the West which has kept the East’s ancient educational pattern alive. By laying emphasis on personalised tutorials, the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh varsities in the United Kingdom, Harvard, Yale, MIT and other Ivy League institutions in the United States, several equally prestigious varsities in the non-English-speaking countries have maintained the close relationship between the teacher and the taught. Students are expected to sweat no less than the professors by regularly interacting with them individually and then presenting interpretative, innovative and original writings on their respective subjects. The transfer of knowledge, therefore, is more spontaneous and seamless.

Also the widely prevalent Asian practice of learning by rote and regurgitating the same in the exam hall has no place in the above varsities. No wonder, world-class and practically applicable research emanates from such institutions. Patents are registered and adopted or bought by business houses. Ironically, the practice of debating and querying has virtually vanished from the original land of guru, shishya and shastrarth.
This age-old system has gained currency in the corporate world now and is popular as mentoring. In this learning relationship there is no discrimination of age, position or gender. Though the mentor is usually senior in age and experience than the protégé, it can be the other way round too and is termed as reverse mentoring. Many senior executives need to learn about latest office technology, social media, computers etc. Here it is worthwhile to seek the help a tech-savvy young executive from within or outside the organisation. That is reverse mentoring.

So what is a mentor? S/he is one before whom you do not feel the need to pretend or sport a mask. You have to be your true self so that the mentor can gauge your weaknesses and strengths properly and enable you to be a better professional by the time the mentoring ends. But mentoring by just one person is not the be all and end all of learning. After all, one needs to develop expertise in several domains during one’s career. Hence you may need several mentors to attain your full potential.

History is replete with examples of mentors helping their protégés achieve memorable successes. Chanakya was instrumental in the rise of Chandragupta Maurya as emperor and was chief adviser to Chandragupta and his son Bindusar. Alexander would not have achieved ‘greatness’ but for his tutor Aristotle.

Moving to the modern business era, Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, was a mentor to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. On Jobs’ demise in 2011, Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page, “Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.”

PepsiCo’s former CEO Indra Nooyi observed, “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today. I am a product of great mentoring, great coaching… Coaches or mentors are very important.” It’s mentoring that helped her break the business glass ceiling and reach the top. Nooyi has figured in Forbes’ list of 100 most powerful persons in the world.

It is evident that mentoring can do wonders both for the individual and the organisation. Many companies see great benefit in institutionalising the mentoring process. For example, accounting giant Deloitte has been a regular practitioner of mentoring; the objective is to ensure that the leadership pipeline is never vacant. Its Emerging Leaders Development Programme keeps on preparing executives with leadership potential through mentoring.

Deloitte’s website informs that each programme participant is assigned a partner, principal, or director-sponsor who commits to at least two years to help their protégés drive their own careers by helping them understand how to steer their organisation. When Deloitte’s bright stars find the company so concerned about the blossoming of their talent they feel like staying on with the organisation. Employee engagement and retention increases and attrition is diminished. This is big advantage as retaining top-notch managers is a big challenge for companies. 

Shedding light on Intel’s mentoring process, management thinker Vidya Hattangadi comments, “Intel takes a slightly different approach to many other Fortune 500 companies. Rather than focus on hierarchy (connecting junior employees with senior employees), Intel focuses on specific knowledge transfer and domain skills that are in demand in present times.
“This philosophy is practised by the fact that everyone has something to learn—and everyone has something to teach. Intel’s mentoring programme is less formal and more entrenched in the culture, resulting in more organic connections. The strength of Intel’s mentoring programme lies in its momentum; rather than a coordinator managing and overseeing the programme like a hawk employees take much of the process into their hands and take charge of their own learning.”

As I had mentioned in the beginning, reverse mentoring is prevalent more in multi-generational workplaces whose numbers are growing. Here, the mentoring process involves matching senior executives with millennials to exchange fresh perspectives and encounter new ways of thinking about issues like technology, social media and current trends.

Somehow many people tend to believe that mentoring should be within the company. But it has been found that executives can learn more from mentors who represent an external business culture and offer novel insights.

A former football coach, Bill Campbell mentored and changed the ways of a host of Silicon Valley’s mighty CEOs. The Investor’s Business Daily described the famous mentor thus: “As a coach, Bill Campbell was willing to go to any lengths to change an executive’s bad behaviour – up to and including telling their mom.” His protégés included the biggest names in technology like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt. He was known for his plain-speak.

True mentoring is also gender neutral. The assumption that female protégés prefer female mentors to learn growing and rising in male-dominated spheres is also without empirical basis. On the contrary, it has been found that female managers tend to learn better from male mentors especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Given this backdrop, institutionalised mentoring can serve as a cost effective tool for enhancing management standards in Nepal. It may be difficult for most companies to hire foreign mentors. But there is no dearth of knowledgeable and highly experienced Nepali promoters, entrepreneurs and top corporate executives. They need to take the initiative to share their treasure trove of skills to build a new generation of proficient management professionals.

Mentoring is a two-way traffic. Those who share knowledge will also get a lot in return in terms of employee loyalty, insight into human resource behaviour and also the innovative spirit which the youth have in abundance.

Basant Chaudhary is a Poet, Writer, The Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. (feedback@basantchaudhary.com)

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