We know that young professional mentors who work in the for-profit world can play a crucial role in changing the life trajectories of underserved youth. Despite the trumpeting of mentorship programs by a large number of companies, however, too few know how to create a culture of mentorship. I’m not talking about encouraging employees to build camaraderie or esteem by spending a day cleaning up a roadside, or volunteering at a soup kitchen or pantry, or taking a poor kid to a ballgame (with company T-shirt and hat included). I’m not even talking about creating a culture of corporate “internship programs,” which seldom lead to long-term employment for underserved youth but which often do feature prominent, well-intentioned CEOs on their boards (and on their billboards). If you think you don’t need a more effective way to promote a culture of mentoring for less fortunate kids among your own workforce of young professionals, do it yourself and lead by example.
Before I began promoting that idea, I tried it with our own organization. I agreed to be a mentor to a young person attending a Catholic high school through Student Sponsor Partners. I wanted all to see that mentorship was rewarding for both the mentee and for me. Soon I was hearing stories from our staff and even my own kids about “their” mentees.
So, when an invitation to speak to a firm’s young employees at one of its regular professional development lunches came, I jumped at it — albeit with the ulterior motive to spread the word about the importance of senior management’s commitment to mentorship. In anticipation of the presentation, I was furnished with an agenda, complete with time segments blocked out and a short period for Q&A. The agenda was fine, but predictable — tell them about your foundation’s history and what you do kind of stuff, and then entertain questions for a few minutes at the end. The day before the lunch I even received a call assuring me that one of the partners would be happy to assist by prompting me with questions. I, in turn, assured the caller I was comfortable speaking to young professionals and did not need an agenda or prompting. I’ve done this often, I said, and with good results — that is, if you ignore my speech at my daughter’s wedding, which I had decided to wing, only to find myself, when the time came, so overcome by emotion that the wedding planner had to prompt me to welcome the guests (the only part of the speech that rated more than a failing grade with my family).
The result of my lunch with the firm’s young employees was not what the firm expected, but it surely proves my point: the way to create a culture of mentorship is for senior management — CEO, CFO, and others included — to take on a mentee themselves, and to make it known publicly that they have done so. After all, don’t we tell young professionals looking to climb the career ladder to pay attention to the way senior managers dress, to what time senior managers come in and go home every day, to how they conduct themselves in the workplace — and to copy them? In other words, we tell young professionals to take their cue from the people at the top.
So what happened at the lunch? As I was coming to the end of my remarks, I asked each of the young professionals to serve as a mentor to an underserved youth, and offered our foundation’s resources to help arrange it and underwrite the cost. The response? Hesitation, confusion, uncertainty? All of that. But then I looked over at members of the senior management team, who appeared to be nodding encouragement, pointed directly at each of them, and asked if they would take on a mentee. What could they say? No? Not a chance. Nodding their heads, they all agreed. The deal was done. They had created a culture of mentorship simply by agreeing to be mentors themselves.
Lunch over, the room emptied; all except senior management (I was their invited guest). As they walked me to the elevators, I just know the thought going through their minds was: Why did we invite this guy to lunch?