As the world has developed, the chorus on the need for leaders to give back to today’s youth has shifted from an indiscernible background hum to a tuneful melody played on every online streaming service in various ways. Interestingly, this outcry is irrespective of gender, race or wealth across the world. The anthropologists out there have helped us put a name to this generation – I think we call them Gen Z, or maybe it is Gen Y? I am still working that out! I genuinely believe that what’s missing is mentoring.
Where do I start with such an important idea? Perhaps it would be best if I reflect on my own growth journey to make my case.
I recall sitting in front of this man, soaking in everything he said with only one question on my mind: why didn’t I do this sooner? I was a wide-eyed young banker and had just been given my first project. It is important to mention that I was straight from Business School in the 1990s, keen and confident in my abilities.
However, I was humble enough to discuss my thoughts with a senior colleague. My colleague was a master professional; just listening to him was like diving into a well of wisdom. Through his experiences, from leadership to team dynamics, the advice he gave was a true eye-opener for me. They say “once you have seen, you cannot unsee”, and I had just gone from viewing in fuzzy black and white to Ultra HD. It was like hitting the jackpot!
I am sure you are wondering if this was the ‘inception moment’ of a long, fruitful mentor-mentee dynamic. No, that did not happen. Instead, I just began to view in Ultra HD and recognised the value of diversity, perspective and constructive criticism. Although I did not know it at the time, this experience showed me how valuable it is to receive as a mentee and give back as a mentor.
Building butterflies – no substitute for hard work or experience
A story is told of a well-meaning boy who observed the struggles of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Curious and kind, he chose to free it by gently cutting open the tightly-wound casing. What he expected to be a resounding triumph of cooperation between humans and nature, to his horror, turned out to be precisely the opposite. The creature that came out resembled nothing like the beautiful work of art that flutters by in nature. This one was wiggly, stunted and had tiny wings. It hobbled on the ground, unable to fly and fulfil its true potential.
Nature, as we are increasingly becoming aware, has value embedded in every experience. In this case, the butterfly builds the strength it needs to fly by struggling, sometimes desperately, out of its cocoon. I am sure there is a catchphrase among the butterfly community: no struggle, no flight. Unfortunately, the empathetic boy who identified with the struggle of another living thing and wanted to help had inadvertently deprived it of the very thing it needed.
Mentorship can be, and usually is, a great help; but it is no substitute for hard work or experience. For clarity viewing in Ultra HD, it is not about getting quick answers to the test or challenge faced but to see and understand for oneself how perseverance can lead to success. Great mentors acknowledge that challenges are vital to the development of leaders, and while offering support they do not interfere with the process of growth.
Much has been written over the years about mentorship – from definitions to famous examples of successful mentorships. So, allow me to follow a slightly different path; let me share how in my experience the virtuous cycle of mentorship is a two-way street, full of lessons for both mentor and mentee.
I have learnt, both as a mentee and mentor, that the relationship thrives on shared vulnerability. Being open with a person, especially those more junior to you, exposes some of your less desirable traits – which can be incredibly challenging. However, remember you are helping someone to see more clearly, and to look at the picture more clearly with greater depth and understanding. With this style of mentorship, your mentee will undoubtedly see your rough edges and patches.
However, vulnerability is not a weakness. I firmly contend that professional vulnerability is an increasingly important strength in leaders today. I believe that honesty in any thriving mentorship relationship makes both the mentor and mentee better. So, in order to help the Gen Xs or Gen Zs get to grips with a grounded picture of reality, here are a few of my stories which I hope will resonate and inspire.
The growth paradox
I have learnt from those mentors open enough to share their experience with me, the errors they made on their journey to the top. At the risk of looking less impressive, they shared their mis-steps, their regrets and, most importantly, what they would have done differently. Nobody gets to the top without making mistakes. It takes being secure in your abilities and your own journey to bring a trusted junior into your professional inner-circle and give them a peek behind the curtain. Let us pause for a moment and imagine the value of that conversation to mentees, hearing a revered leader talk about how they had failed.
Practically, they gain years of wisdom in a fraction of the time. Emotionally, formatively, the mentees becomes less critical of themselves and more accepting of their mistakes. Their challenges are part of their journey (remember the butterfly) and thus a learning experience. Success is built on the foundation of lessons learned from decisions that did not work out. Mentees learn to fail fast, succeed faster, and thus move forward and upward. This is the paradox of growth.
A mirror that is a window to the future
Similarly, mentorship allows the mentor to see how far they have come. I recall times, often very vividly in places that I had closed off, when I had to deal with many challenging situations. I led teams comprising colleagues older than me. I managed egos of young and ambitious professionals who had attended the best schools, gotten the best grades and were constantly consuming articles on billion-dollar startups and million-dollar bonuses and therefore did not see the need to listen to me.
There were moments where I felt so overwhelmed, but I drew on my inner strength and, just like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, I pulled through. The new skills I learnt, the competencies I built, the hard work it took, have made me a better, more empathetic leader.
In all of this, the mentee is given hope to keep keeping on. They recognise that their leaders did not just magically appear; like them, their journey was fraught with many a banana skin. Through a mentor-mentee relationship, the mentee is helped to navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of the corporate world; and in so doing, they become more empowered to pass their own lessons on to others. The virtuous cycle builds mentor and mentee, and the next generation all stand to benefit together.
Time is Priceless
Throughout our journey, we constantly need to go back to the basics. Our return to the fundamentals keeps us grounded. It is these same principles which guide the next generation of leaders. What changes, however, are the ‘ologys’ (technology, methodology and psychology). The mentor is investing in the future by passing these principles on to their mentee.
The mentee takes the base principle, applies the current ‘ology’, and repackages it appropriately for a new generation. The more leaders embrace professional vulnerability and pour themselves into their juniors in a relationship built on trust, the more things improve over time.
By virtue of age, mentees are often more adept at the technology that makes life and work easier. Learning solid and time-tested principles enables the mentee to stand firm on what works while finding more empowered ways to achieve the same thing. Time is a priceless constant; and by learning the ideologies (another ‘ology’) of today’s leaders, tomorrow’s decision-makers do not reinvent the wheel but use it as a basis for things appropriate to their time that we are yet to imagine.
Here today, further tomorrow
If mentoring is giving back to enrich others and the world around us, will you reach out to bring along a junior colleague? Will you find a mentor yourself today? As we pour ourselves into the lives of others, we will see ourselves grow, the next generation mature, and the whole world blossom just a little bit more. “He that watereth shall be watered also himself.”
>>>The writer is the Managing Director of Absa Bank Ghana