Mentoring is Critical to Organizational Longevity — So Why Is It Such a Struggle?

In her breakout book, "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and a former top Google executive, devotes an entire chapter to the importance of mentorship. The chapter is cleverly titled "Are You My Mentor?" and it highlights the struggles of both finding a mentor, and mentoring.

In the chapter, Sandberg explains that each time she speaks, several young women will approach her and ask her to be their mentor. While she'd like to help them, she knows little or nothing about them or their work; the women are missing the point of mentorship.

Sandberg also tells the story a woman she felt she had closely "mentored" for years. One day the woman, visibly upset, had expressed the difficulty of a work situation and angrily remarked that she "didn't have a mentor." Sandberg was hurt, and questioned the value of all the time she had invested in the woman.

Just don't call me a mentor
The best mentorship isn't often referred to as such. Sandberg had never told the woman she considered their relationship one of mentorship — she felt it was obvious. I consider one of my mentors to be Chuck Lauer, the long-time publisher of Modern Healthcare. We meet every few months for lunch and he gives me advice on raising my profile in the industry and is always willing to make valuable introductions. Yet, I've never outwardly called him my mentor. Most executives have had a leader or two in their careers who championed them. While you and this person may not have been in a formal mentorship program, make no mistake, this person was indeed a valuable mentor.

In healthcare today, many have said we face a mentorship crisis. As the industry and the organizations within it become more complex, top executives can barely keep their heads on, let alone set aside a significant amount of time for developing and coaching up-and-coming leaders.

Of 200 healthcare CEOs older than 55, only 39 percent said they have worked with their boards to develop a formal succession planning process. Furthermore, only 29 percent said they have identified a successor who could step into their position, according to a survey from Witt/Kieffer. Some survey respondents said succession planning was not on their radar, despite knowing better. Others felt it was simply something "corporate" would handle.

And don't assign me someone to mentor
Speaking of "corporate" handling things, many healthcare systems have responded to the lack of mentorship in their organizations by creating formal leadership development and mentorship programs. While leadership development training is certainly important, being assigned a mentor (or being assigned someone to mentor you may or may not have experience working with), isn't true mentorship at all. Instead, corporate should focus on training top executives on the importance of mentorship, encouraging or even requiring them to set aside time for it, and allowing them to select (as in an organic mentorship relationship) those young managers and directors whose performance catches their eye.

Fortunately or unfortunately (however you want to look at it), mentoring is an area top leaders of all industries need help with. A survey on executive coaching, found that 21 percent of CEOs reported the need to develop their mentoring skills (see chart below). I'd venture the number should be higher, but with all the competing priorities for skill development, it's easy to understand why just a fifth of executive are actively developing this skill.

Source: Harvard Business Review

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So what makes a great mentor?
Two years ago, Lauer wrote a column for Becker's, listing out 10 traits of great mentors. The list suggests that great mentorship requires two broad things: demonstrating great leadership so that others can learn from your behavior, and championing others. I've listed the key takeaway here, but I encourage you to check out the column in its entirety by clicking here.

"1. Effective leaders are present. They don't sit in their offices making phone calls all day, but take the time to wander around, engaging their teams in meaningful conversations, generating new ideas.

2. Effective leaders mentor others. They just don't tell others what to do; they show them how to do it and why they should do it.

3. Effective leaders see things that others don't see. They look into the future and grasp things that others do not have the courage to even contemplate.

4. Effective leaders don't stop learning. They read, they listen to others and they go to seminars and meetings — all to stay on top of new concepts and knowledge.

5. Effective leaders make loyalty a high priority. That doesn't mean they want a bunch of yes people around them, but they do want people whom they can count on long-term to do their jobs well. They also show by example that loyalty is a two-way street.

6. Effective leaders always step into the breach when needed. They go out of their way to help their people. They look for these opportunities because it sends a message that the organization has a heart and is willing to step up to the plate to help employees in need.  

7. Effective leaders make sure they explain things in detail to their teams. They don't wait for HR or internal communications to send out a mass e-mail.

8. Effective leaders are good listeners. They pay attention to new ideas. They listen to learn each day what people need from them to do their jobs more effectively.

9. Effective leaders are humble and have great integrity. They don’t lead by fear and intimidation, knowing those practices will drive out good people and don’t advance the organization’s goals.

10. Last, but not least, effective leaders are great human beings. Cpl. Burleson, coach Waterman and Dave Cleary were tough and demanding, but they were also decent and caring people. That shines through, and inspires others to want to do more for the organization."

As Lauer suggests, one of the best ways to mentor is to visibly demonstrate the type of leadership you want to develop in others.

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