By Michael A. Zaydon, CPA
Mentoring is not a new concept. It has existed in name for more than 2,500 years. Much has been written on the topic, especially for the benefit of the mentee, but an area worth addressing in greater detail is the supply side of the equation – the role and value of being a mentor.
The term “mentor” originated between the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. when the Greek poet Homer introduced the character Mentor in The Odyssey. Mentor’s role in the epic was to guide Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, while Odysseus was away during the Trojan War.
Fast-forward through history, and you’ll see numerous instances of experienced guidance: Socrates’ Plato, Plato’s Aristotle, Virgil’s Dante, Ellsworth Kelly’s Robert Indiana, Warren Buffett’s Bill Gates. As we consider these, and the many more we may see in our personal lives, the discussion around mentorship and its importance is typically from the mentee’s perspective. And if the many articles and advice from thought leaders succeed in motivating ever-growing student populations in colleges to seek mentors, there will be pressure on the supply side (the mentor) to keep up with demand.
It can be difficult to entice experienced professionals to give of their limited free time to impart their knowledge and experiences upon those who are following in their footsteps. To grow the mentor pool, we should contemplate three propositions: the value of the relationship to the mentor, an easy path for the mentor to connect with mentees, and an effective and natural modus operandi for the relationship to stand the test of time.
Value to the Mentor
Mentoring relationships are often driven by a mentor who genuinely cares about “giving back,” but many well-intentioned programs fail to get off the ground due to a lack of willing mentors to fill the need. Perhaps potential mentors need to be shown more personal value beyond the altruism.
First, embarking on a mentoring relationship helps the mentor plug into current events, values, interest, concerns, and dreams of their future workforce. This matters because this understanding can help inform business and management decisions. As millennials and Gen Z are filling more and more positions while baby boomers retire, knowing how to manage, motivate, and retain your workforce will prove valuable in the long-term. Also, the younger generations entering the workforce natively possess the digital and technical competencies needed to enable a sustained competitive advantage in the current market landscape.
Potential mentors who have strong connections at the university level, including their alma maters, can leverage these relationships to make early introductions with potential talent. By offering to serve as a career mentor to those who are still in college (more on this later), the mentor and her or his firm can help guide students through the competitive campus recruiting process. In doing so, mentors not only will help the student, but they also may be able to identify talent early on for their own firm’s needs.
Three paths to becoming a mentor include mentoring in your company, mentoring through a professional organization, or mentoring through your business school alma mater.
Many companies have formal internal mentoring or coaching programs. These frameworks match junior employees with more experienced counterparts. These corporate programs do promote relationship-building, but the closeness of the parties involved in their day-to-day work obligations can sometimes muddle the goal of having an objective sounding board.
Another route mentors-to-be can pursue is via professional organizations and networks. This path can lead to a fruitful mentoring relationship, but it may involve significant effort on the part of the mentor. The additional legwork may come in the form of filtering which organization(s) to focus on, how to get connected to their mentoring programs, and staying engaged with the organization and the mentee as life and career priorities evolve.
My preferred path, and the one I would argue is the best, is to give back to your alma mater by mentoring current students. The shared common ground of the college experience establishes a meaningful foundation to get the relationship started on a personal level before you even “talk shop.” Students can relate more directly to a professional who started where they sit today. The mentor, too, will be better equipped to empathize with the mentee’s questions or concerns about career trajectory, rigor of course schedule, and how to navigate the intricacies of campus recruiting specific to that school. All of these, and much more, help to bind the mentor and mentee on a deeper level than may otherwise be achieved.
In a metrics-driven world, it is tempting to create regular checkpoints and quantifiable benchmarks to track the progress of a mentoring relationship. I won’t completely disregard the value of capturing the data points of life, but I believe human interactions are more complex than check boxes and algorithms. Look no further than a LinkedIn profile. You may have hundreds of connections and be affiliated with numerous groups and organizations, but how many meaningful relationships exist within this virtual network?
My argument is that the framework for a successful mentoring relationship can be quite vague and conceptual. Setting parameters and expectations for both the mentor and mentee is a reasonable starting point. However, they are by no means the end in itself. From the beginning, consider establishing a clear purpose and identifying shared values. In time, the values (not the technical competency or passion for business alone) by which you and your mentee live can, and will, likely dictate the success of the relationship.
Relationships, and the people in them, evolve. Tightly defined frameworks do not necessarily mesh with the flexibility these evolutions require. The most meaningful mentoring relationships should look and feel more like friendships than business affiliations.
Relational, Not Transactional
Mentorships take time and effort on both sides of the equation. It takes time to get to know someone, to understand what inspires, motivates, drives, and scares them. Mentorships build human connections through shared experiences. Although this blog is geared toward promoting value to potential mentors, do not confuse the message. Mentorship is not a series of transactions. It is not about always giving or always receiving.
Ultimately, mentoring is about establishing a meaningful connection that promotes mutual growth. Don’t be surprised if you look back years from now and realize you learned more from your mentee than they learned from you.
Michael A. Zaydon, CPA, is a manager at PwC and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. Find him on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.
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