Mentoring as a Tool for Leading and Managing the Work of Innovation

It's National Mentoring month and thus is a good time to explore mentoring as a career development tool. Mentoring can help organizations fill their leadership gaps by developing the next generation of individuals who will lead and manage the work of innovation.
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Two trends are converging within today's global workplace. First, demographic changes are producing a leadership gap due to the exit of baby boomers from the workplace, placing pressure on companies to fill the gap in leadership and to prevent valuable knowledge from exiting the organization. The second trend is the need for innovation and creativity across all aspects of business development, business processes and service delivery. The capability of a firm to provide value-added products, solutions and services is inarguably dependent upon the firm's competence in these areas. Just as organizations must retain the knowledge and skills of established leaders, they must also focus on developing the next generation of leaders who can effectively lead others toward innovation across complex, dynamic and global organizational settings. Thus, a focus on innovation must be central to filling the leadership gap, yet determining which tools are most effective in this endeavor remains a daunting challenge.

It's National Mentoring month and thus is a good time to explore mentoring as a career development tool. Mentoring can provide critical support for building individual and organizational competencies and can help organizations fill their leadership gaps by developing the next generation of individuals who will lead and manage the work of innovation. Mentoring has gained popularity and attention as an approach to support career development for those advancing through the ranks in all types of organizations. Employees with access to mentoring consistently benefit from these relationships. For example, research shows that people with a mentor report higher salaries, more frequent promotions, higher job satisfaction, a stronger commitment to their organization and a reduced likelihood to want to leave their jobs as compared to people without mentors. It should be no surprise then that the firms that invest the most in mentoring initiatives are often also among the firms recognized as the best places to work in their industries.

I believe it is time to expand our view of mentoring to include the process of leading and managing the work of innovation. Some recent research has drawn a link between the positive impact of mentoring on the work done by creative teams and on the overall process of innovation. Leaders with strong functional expertise and strengths in the creative process and in social skills are more likely to have a positive impact on innovative and creative outcomes. Other important competencies include the ability of the leader to make ethical decisions and to act as a buffer against negative consequences, especially for the work done by creative teams. This emerging stream of mentoring research has documented some successful examples of companies that utilize formal mentoring efforts to develop and lead innovation through the use of apprenticeships, role modeling, coaching and peer mentoring.

At Pitt Business, we have a unique approach to developing the next generation of leaders through our undergraduate Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics. During the past 15 years, we have leveraged experiential learning approaches both inside and outside of the classroom to develop students who can lead others, produce impact, and be effective and ethical leaders among their peers. Topics such as servant leadership, managing diverse stakeholders, building collaborations and developing a wide array of relational leadership skills are the cornerstone of this approach to leadership development. However, the certificate program also leverages two key mentoring processes. First, it uses peer mentoring among college students to foster teamwork and project management skills that research shows are critical for leaders of innovation. Second, the power of ethical role models to serve as agents of change is facilitated by outside of the classroom project work in collaboration with more advanced students, alumni, and business and community leaders. We have seen the transfer of knowledge in the critical skill area of leadership take place through these peer mentoring relationships and the interaction with knowledgeable external role models.

Our observation is that mentoring within the content of innovation is a critical tool for bridging the gap between experiences and learning. Leaders can learn how to comprehend complex situations, provide knowledge to their team and ensure that critical development experiences for themselves and for team members are not wasted. While organizations are facing a leadership gap, especially among the types of people who are critical for managing innovation, the creation of programs that support effective mentors can be just the right tool to make sure that knowledge and experiences are not lost and are instead retained and leveraged to drive innovation for the organization into the future.

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