As a long-time mentor and advisor to new business owners, I can attest to both the need for mentoring and the satisfaction that comes from watching an aspiring but tentative entrepreneur grow into someone capable of changing the world. Business is not rocket science, and one-on-one guidance face-to-face, with a real project, trumps the classroom and mistakes every time.
In addition, mentoring is one of the most productive roles I have found as a member of the 78 million Baby Boomers otherwise entering retirement age. I can’t think of a better way to empower experienced business professionals, whether they are executives, engineers, accountants, lawyers, or bankers. It’s a win-win situation for everyone in this new age of the entrepreneur.
I found additional guidance in the classic book, “Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America,” by Patty Alper, who has been mentoring for fifteen years. She provides a detailed guide on how to get started as a mentor, how to have the greatest impact, and enjoy the role at the same time. Here is a quick summary of the lessons she offers for all of us:
- It’s an opportunity for give-back and pay-forward. I have enjoyed some success in business, but I would hate to think that everyone has to make all the mistakes I did to get there. Every professional I know has plenty to contribute and enjoys the give-back as much as the learning. Those who learned from others first really enjoy paying it forward.
- Everyone finds meaning in new win-win relationships. The new generations in business, and even the old ones, believe that relationships get things done, more than skills learned in school. Building relationships, and finding ways for a win-win, is what mentoring is about. Good business relationships make better teams and customers.
- Face-to-face mentoring generates more inspiration. Entrepreneurship and business leadership requires passion, confidence, and creativity. Working directly with a mentor provides a depth of communication, through body language as well as personal focus, that is much more likely to provide the required inspiration compared to classrooms.
- Real-life projects incent high learning and retention. Business is not predictable, and there are no answers in the back of the book for most situations. Real projects and actual ventures are the best way to incent thinking outside the box, teach that mistakes are just learning vehicles, and focus on problem-solving and innovation as the keys to success.
- Mentoring pitches turns students into communicators. Mentoring is really a lesson in two-way communication, required for every business transaction. Aspiring entrepreneurs learn to talk in front of others, sell their ideas, and be judged. They learn resilience and confidence, as well as how to show respect for investors and customers.
- Smart companies use mentoring to find future talent. Today, leading companies including Starbucks, Zappos, and Ernst & Young, are finding that mentoring is a great corporate social responsibility focus, as well as a way to find and train future talent. It’s another example of win-win, for the business as well as the mentees.
- Mentors learn about culture changes and new generations. When I am mentoring, I’m always surprised at how much I learn about how people think today, and what I can do to work effectively with them as team members and customers. One of the challenges we all have is cross-generational understanding. It’s hard to learn that in school.
In my view, this type of mentoring is a missing link in our education system today between schools and businesses. It’s bringing back a bit of the paradigm of the master tradesman in the European guild system mentoring journeymen before they stepped out on their own. Today we need it to improve engagement, confidence, and work satisfaction for all business professionals.
We need to close the Gallup poll gap between the 98 percent of academic officials who are confident they are preparing students for success, versus the 11 percent of C-level business executives who strongly believe that college graduates have the skills they are looking for. Entrepreneurs are our next generation of C-level executives. Let’s make sure they are ready.