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Mentoring Myopia: Mentorship in the 21st century

Today, mentors are seen less as career advancers and more as career collaborators, focusing more on "sharing perspective and experience" and less on "giving advice."
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Thanks to technological advancement, changes in socio-demographics and diversity, meaningful mentoring relationships can now take a variety of forms and lead to a far more varied set of results. Today, mentors are seen less as career advancers and more as career collaborators, focusing more on "sharing perspective and experience" and less on "giving advice." Mentorship is now a relationship that spans geographies, sectors, genders and generations.

What mentors have learned from the railroad

First published in 1960, Ted Levitt's Harvard Business Review article "Marketing Myopia" reveals that "[R]ailroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business."

The same could be said of mentorship. The advent of digital technology and loosening of business relationships have allowed mentorship to expand its footprint and usher in a new era of radically changed relationships. Mentors -- good ones at least -- are no longer necessarily in the sponsorship or advocacy business. Instead, they are in the cross-sector perspective-delivery business. Mentors provide useful traffic control to ensure that paths -- like railroad tracks -- run smoothly.

For mentees, age is nothing but a number

The boundaries between who can and should be a mentor are blurring. With 20-something CEOs in abundance and 10 or more career changes becoming commonplace, it's difficult to define a one-size-fits-all mentor profile. There is clear demand to learn from others at all ages and a growing acknowledgement that younger voices may hold keys to change. Might we see a person under 30 on the board of directors of every public company, as the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers community proposed at Davos this year? The world could be a better place for doing so.

Gender and social status are also breaking down typical mentorship roles. There is greater emphasis on mentoring of women by women, such as initiatives launched by the Harvard Kennedy School'sWomen and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), although much more can be done in this regard which also dovetails with fostering women leadership. Not only does a mentor relationship instill a sense of responsibility, but it also provides a sense of empowerment: everyone can be a mentor and everyone has gifts for others.

One of the great examples of mentoring from modern history is the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his mentor Dadabhai Naoroji, who helped start the Indian Independence Movement in 1857. On August 15, 1947 Gandhi completed the first and largest non-violent resistance movement with 50 million people which resulted in a return of India to its people. Naoroji mentored Gandhi, and Gandhi went on to mentor a nation.

Multi-Mentor Ecosystems

Through examples like Gandhi we glimpse the possibility of one-to-many mentoring relationships, and the digital revolution is speeding up this possibility. Mentoring in the digital domain has the potential to scale up to many-to-many mutually beneficial relationships. Here the focus can be on support without a scripted outcome, which is a true expression of mentorship.

The World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders (YGL) program, of which Rinne is a member, is an example of a "mentoring meshwork" in which young leaders from around the world essentially mentor and serve as an informal support network for one another. It is a community of mentorship, akin to a community of practice, which is enhanced by YGLs' ability to tap into networked infrastructure and link these relationships to professional goals.

IBM has embarked on several occasions to be mentored by its own employees, customers and business partners. Called "Jams," these many-to-many threaded online conversations are essentially crowd-sourced mentoring writ large. They take on game-changing topics, such as the pivotal "Values Jam" in 2003 which was the first reexamination of the underlying values and beliefs of IBM in almost 100 years. It resulted in a new statement of core beliefs forged by grassroots online mentoring by employees, both for the senior executive team and one another.

Multi-mentor ecosystems also can be successfully built through personal advisory boards, akin to boards of directors for an individual's professional development rather than corporate governance. Bringing together multiple mentors in this way not only allows for lateral thinking and complementary strengths, but the mentors themselves benefit from such a community. Thanks to technology, it is now possible to bring together a rich web of mentors from around the world to collaborate.

For example, virtual online mentoring groups of entrepreneurs allow people to call in internationally to listen to sessions and to share ideas and meaningful guidance with one another at no cost. Access to these discussions is typically enabled via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social Media Heaven's Lindsay Wilson runs one such virtual mentoring group and recruits people such as Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth, and others to lead these types of conversations.

The Journey versus the destination

Mentoring is not about a particular outcome or destination; it's a professional journey. It's a process of discovery, not just ladder-climbing.

Mentoring helps with perspective and being drawn toward something, rather than running from something. Many mentors have lamented not fully setting expectations that the relationship is not about "help a mentee find and land the next opportunity." This is the role of a sponsor. Rather, more valuable mentoring is a priceless opportunity to discover potential and possibilities.

Great mentors deliver actionable perspective and serve as catalysts to help others discover the next and best steps for themselves. With time, a relationship of reciprocity can be built, where both mentor and mentee share and celebrate lifetimes of experience and achievement.