The Power of Mentorship: How Am I Doing as a Leader? The Answer Is In How the People You Lead Are Doing

Mentors aren’t supposed to be Sherpas carrying your heavy pack for you up the mountain but they are meant to help guide you, provide context, and offer their advice.  Too often I see organizations trying to shirk their responsibility in developing future leaders by suggesting that personal development is the responsibility of the employees.  Certainly the employee is responsible for taking “ownership” of their own development but that is a far cry from organizations not having any responsibility.  When this gap exists it will be at the organizations own peril – they will struggle to replace departing leaders with qualified candidates and eventually they will battle with the Peter Principle.


“How am I doing as a leader? The answer is how the people you lead are doing. Do they learn? Do they visit customers? Do they manage conflict? Do they initiate change? Are they growing and getting promoted? You won’t remember when you retire what you did in the first quarter of 1994 or the third. What you’ll remember is how many people you developed. How many people you helped have a better career because of your interest and your dedication to their development…. When confused as to how you’re doing as a leader, find out how the people you lead are doing. You’ll know the answer.”
Larry Bossidy, Former CEO Allied Signal / Honeywell


Last month I had the opportunity to interview Shawn Mintz, the founder and President of Canadian startup MentorCity (  I had stumbled across his company’s site as I was doing some research for an article and thought it had an interesting angle on mentorship.  Personally, I have been passionate about the role of mentorship, both within and outside the workplace, and had been meaning to write a post on the topic for some time.  Shawn had launched MentorCity in October 2011 as a free online mentor matching service and so far the public site has achieved over 600 active users.  During a demonstration, Shawn showed how the site makes it easy to sign up by using your LinkedIn account to pre-populate most of your profile information and then asking you a series of questions about your expectations for a mentor relationship.  The tool suggests a 15 minute interaction between the mentee and mentor to determine if there is a good fit.  If there is a good fit then both parties agree on if they want it to be a formal, with regular meetings, or informal mentoring relationship.  And once you become a mentee then you will also be presented with invitations to become a mentor to others – completing the circle.

According the Shawn the public site has been growing as expected and he is currently busy creating “private label” versions for several clients in Canada.  These organizations utilize the tool to help create and measure mentoring relationships within their organization.  The reporting provided by the tool helps to create easy transparency for measuring the program’s effectiveness.  Currently Shawn is working to secure angel investor funding for a second round of development that will ensure the site is capable of supporting mentoring relationships globally.  (Note: currently the “Meeting Location” field is optional – for users outside of Canada you can just leave the field blank).  What I particularly like about MentorCity is that they are not just in the business of providing mentoring tools to organizations; they are providing a mentoring opportunity for free to anyone who wants to participate!

Having changed organizations several times in my career, among the first things that I would notice with the new organization were those areas that are dramatically different from my previous employer.  In one of my transitions, an area of dramatic difference was in how the two organizations addressed employee development.  I see mentorship as a critical piece to employee development, giving employees, especially new employees, the assistance to learn and grow outside of their direct reporting relationships.  Workplace mentors have helped me to navigate within the organization to solve work problems, to understand some of the political landmines within the organization, and to discover potential new roles within the organization.

Let me quickly compare the differences these two organizations had when it came to mentorship.  At one company I had a mentor assigned almost immediately after starting my role.  I didn’t have to fill out a form, I didn’t have to figure out who ran the “mentor program” within the company, and I didn’t have to seek out on my own mentor.  This mentor might not have been a perfect fit but they were “someone” who was there to help me navigate this new organization.  Compare that with another company that didn’t even have a mentor program when I started, or if they did no one knew about it.  In my tenure at this organization they tried launching two or three different mentor programs – all of which failed.

Why did they fail?  In my observation they failed for two reasons.  First, helping to build the company’s future leaders was never a priority with most of the executives and so no one was ever held accountable for participating in these programs.  Many of these company leaders had risen through the ranks of the organization so the difficulty of navigating the organization or learning the necessary tribal knowledge may have never occurred to them.  Second, in my opinion many of the senior managers within the organization were not strong people leaders to begin with so being asked to give advice to junior employees was a somewhat scary proposition for them.  For those leaders who may have been afraid of training the future competition, it was far easier to just ignore the problem.

As I was finishing this post, I noticed that Fast Company had published an article yesterday titled “The Future of Mentorship in an Age of Entrepreneurs.”  In the article, the author Maynard Webb quotes Jim Billington from 1997 with “the traditional mentor-protégé relationship has gone the way of the mainframe computer.”  Webb suggests that in 2012, both of these ideas are dead.  While it may be a bit of hyperbole to catch the reader’s attention I struggle with paradox that he creates.  In one sentence he is suggesting that “the onus of personal and professional development is on the individual” and a little later his is giving advice to companies that “If you don’t have formal mentoring practices in place, implement them.”  Is it on the individual or the employee?  Maybe both?  Where I have a problem is when we let companies off of the hook for not developing their employees insisting that it is the individuals who should figure out where they need development and support.  I feel this is incredibly short cited by the organization for two reasons.  First, those leaders who are talented enough to figure it out on their own will move on someday and if they haven’t developed their replacement who will fill their shoes?  Second, some employees may be able to figure out “what good looks like” and driving towards that goal for today’s organization but are they as confident with their answer of what the organization will need in the future?  If we are not continuing to develop our people we will eventually hit the Peter Principle – the idea that each of us will rise to our level of incompetence.

Food for thought:

  • How do you manage your mentor relationships?  Have you ever heard of Jim Collins’ idea of a Personal Board of Directors?
  • How does your organization manage and measure mentorship participation?  Have you used tools like MentorCity or Menttium?
  • When was the last time you offered to be a mentor to someone?

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