Is Mentoring a Lost Art?
By Mike Carlton

A mentor is a wise advisor, a loyal friend, a trusted guide, a teacher and a coach.
“Après moi le déluge” Louis XV

Long Ago

Stop! Before reading further, open your iPad and enter the names of the two or three most important mentors you had early in your career. Think a bit about the impact they have had on your professional life. And possibly your total life experience.

Also, think a bit of what things might have been like if they had never connected with you those many years ago. What would your life be like today? And, how good an agency professional would you be?

The simple fact is that today’s best agency people usually had yesterday’s best mentors.

Missing in Action

During the Great Recession US agencies and related marketing firms shrank by almost 100,000 people. With similar shrinkage around much of the world.

The perspective of this is stunning! Something approaching 20% of jobs disappeared. And, so did the seasoned talent that occupied those jobs.

Some of the first to go were senior agency people. Professionals that were probably fairly expensive and may have been past their peak in productivity.

Historically, these folks did much of the mentoring of younger agency staffers. They had the knowledge, the experience, the wisdom, and most importantly, the time to help young talent develop. The good ones believed in giving back to the next generation of agency professionals the skill gifts that they had received in their youth. While their mentoring contribution was not easily quantifiable, it was of incredible value.

Now, the ranks of those unselfish mentors are dramatically thinned. Is the art of mentoring being lost?

Mentoring’s Impact

There is little question about the value of mentoring. A survey published in USA Today asked the following question:

“How much of an impact does coaching or mentoring have on career success?”

While the response was not surprising, it certainly was clear. 46% said that coaching or mentoring has a great impact on career success. 45% more said it had a moderate impact. Only 9% said it had little or no impact on career success.

Nothing wishy-washy here. The perceived value of mentoring is overwhelming.

Competitive Environment

It’s a tough world out there. Young professional talent is increasingly in short supply. Attracting, recruiting, training, growing and retaining young professional talent is the key to the future success of any intellectually driven enterprise. And advertising agencies have to compete for that talent in a much more difficult marketplace.

For example, some of the major consulting firms spend upward of 10% of total payroll for staff training. So do other talent intensive businesses. They are investing heavily in the development of their young professionals.

Do agencies put this much relative effort into the training and development of their young people? Are advertising agencies lagging in their commitment to training and developing young talent?

Some agencies used to have formal training programs. But many of these programs were killed during the recent difficult years. It is not clear how many are now being reinstated. There is some evidence that management recognized mentoring is an ongoing activity in only about 25% of agencies.

The best young talent will go where they feel they will have the greatest chance of growing professionally. And their employer’s commitment to their development will surely play a key role in their career choice.

The Role of Mentoring

But, you may say that most agencies never had much in the way of formal training programs anyway, but they always had great mentors. And that is true.

The question is that in an increasingly competitive and cost sensitive agency business environment, if formal training programs are unaffordable can mentoring fill the gap? And if so, what should be expected of mentoring?

And most importantly, is mentoring itself even affordable?

And if there is little training or mentoring, can the agency industry really expect to be the choice of the best and brightest young talent? And without that talent, what kind of future is in store?

Mentoring Defined

The dictionary defines a mentor as: a wise advisor, a loyal friend, a trusted guide, a teacher and a coach.

These are not typical business terms. They reflect the fact that the relationship with a good mentor goes way beyond a normal business relationship but rather to a much deeper personal one.

Thus, when we discuss mentoring we are venturing outside a tidy world defined in monetary value. Mentoring is not, and never has been, something that can be easily measured or quantified. There is just no place for it on an Income Statement or Balance Sheet.

Why Mentor?

This then raises the question, just why do mentors mentor? If the relationship is primarily personal, why do they do it? If there is no economic benefit to them what is their motivation? What do they expect to get out of it?

Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to look back at the folks that mentored you. What was the reason they took you under their wing? And not someone else?

Then ask yourself what did they receive from it? Certainly there was no financial reward in it for them. And it took valuable time that they could have been using on more urgent, and probably more financially rewarding, matters.

So, why did they do it?

The Answer is Really Quite Simple

Mentoring is one of the most natural and most satisfying activities in life. It is also one of the most frustrating and most difficult.

In many respects it is very much like parenting.

A true mentor, like a good parent, is internally driven and wants the recipient to succeed. In fact the mentor really wants his young charge to move beyond the level that he himself has achieved. And in return, self-satisfaction is the mentor’s only reward.

When you look at it this way one could say that mentoring is an act of unconditional love.

Love in business? Wow. That’s pretty heavy stuff.

A Closer Look

In understanding why a mentor mentors it appears there are four key dimensions to examine. First is its naturalness. Second, its satisfactions. Third, its frustrations. And forth, its difficulties. Let’s take a closer look at each:

1. Its Naturalness
Since the beginning of time, the youth of every species have been taught by the elders. Nothing is more natural than parenting. Be it the bird teaching its offspring to fly. Or the human mother patiently reading to her child.

Every species naturally mentors. It is part of the DNA. It is just how the world works. The need to mentor is intuitive. And it springs from deep inside. The source is built in. It requires no advanced degree.

2. Its Satisfactions
Mentoring is a link in the chain of life. Each generation passes on knowledge and wisdom to the next. As such, mentoring can be viewed as a way one assures a measure of immortality. The life of each being is finite. But through mentoring, knowledge, skills, visions and values can live on indefinitely.

In this context, it can be said that mentoring imparts a sense of purpose in a confusing and troubled world. And in doing so, provides an increased sense of personal worth to the mentor.

3. Its Frustrations
Mentoring is not easy. It is not uncommon for the recipient to not want to receive it. Think of trying to give wise advice to a teenager. Watch a dog trying to shepherd her pups. Knowledge and wisdom may not be easily accepted by youth.

So, gratification cannot be expected to come from the recipient. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Yet mentoring endures.

4. Its Difficulties
Ultimately each of us is a product of what we have learned. Some of us received excellent mentoring early in our agency careers. Some of us didn’t. So, individual experience with the practice of mentoring varies widely.

And there is a lot of truth in the old saying that you cannot give away something that you have never received. While mentoring is a learnable skill, nothing beats the internalization that comes from direct experience on the receiving end.

Thus, it is quite difficult for some to be able to embrace the concept of mentoring, much less be effective at it.

The Cost of Mentoring

While most everyone believes that mentoring within an advertising agency is a good thing, it is not without its cost. Mentoring takes commitment. And mentoring takes time. Time of senior people that most likely can be used to more immediate economic advantage on business development or paying client work.

Thus, agencies are caught in a conundrum. Do you maximize immediate revenue at the expense of developing talent for the future? Or do you forgo some money today in order to build the future talent base?

Not easy questions. But clearly if agencies do not develop talent for the future when other intellectual services businesses are spending heavily in that area the role of advertising agencies in our society will surely decline.

“Après moi le déluge”

In the late 1700s as social unrest was increasing in France, Louis XV is reported to have dismissed his advisors concerns about the country’s future with the famous remark (translated) “After me, the flood.” It wasn’t long until that attitude cost the French Monarchy their heads.

Could it be that a lot of today’s agency leaders are as myopic? Could it be that they are sacrificing the future agency talent pool for immediate financial returns? Or is it mostly just benign neglect?

These are certainly questions worth pondering.

An Interesting Side Benefit

General Mills has a very successful institutionalized mentoring program. While it is much more formal and structured than what probably makes sense for an entrepreneurial agency, they have discovered an interesting side benefit.

They have come to believe that mentoring is much more of a two-way street than they initially expected. It seems that their mentors are learning all kinds of valuable insights into the skills, interests and motivations of another generation. Insights that make the senior people more in tune with a younger market. And thus more successful in their jobs.

Clearly, this kind of generational insight is something that could benefit many of us raised in the heyday of network television.

Looking Ahead

“Ok” you say, “I had great mentors. And I want my young people to have great mentors too. I believe that we should be investing more in our future talent. The question I have is how to make more mentoring happen in my shop, without busting the budget doing it?”

So, what makes for an agency with a successful mentoring environment?

Five Pre-Conditions

Because mentoring is so personal and can flow so naturally, not many organizations have formal, structured mentoring programs. And the “how to” body of information, while rapidly growing, is still quite sketchy.

Yet when you examine those agencies where mentoring seems to thrive, at least some of these five pre-conditions generally appear. They are:

1. Part of the Agency’s DNA
Mentoring is a bit like motherhood and the flag. Nobody is against it. But it is not easy to culturally embed. As a result, many agencies say they endorse and support mentoring. Yet only a few have made it an important part of their DNA.

To have mentoring become integral with the agency’s culture it takes significant commitment from the top. In fact, in agencies in which mentoring is strong you almost always find senior leaders that are natural, intuitive mentors themselves. They practice what they preach.

And there is nothing quite like leading by example.

2. The Agency is Populated by People With High Self-Esteem
A good mentor wants her charge to excel. Even exceed the capabilities of the mentor. This takes people with strong self-belief. People that are not at all threatened by having their young charge do better than they can.

Remember, like a good parent, the satisfaction of a good mentor comes from the accomplishment of the individual being mentored. Thus, there is never any loss of face when a young charge soars.

A sense of pride overwhelms any sense of threat.

3. Mentoring is Expected of those Capable of Doing So
As mentioned earlier, if someone has not been well mentored himself, it is usually much more difficult for him to intuitively mentor others. So skill levels in this area can be all over the place. Thus, it is probably unrealistic to expect everyone to be a good mentor.

But the people who are naturally good mentors, and enjoy it, should be encouraged to do it. Even more, they should be granted the time it requires. And they should be rewarded, both psychically and financially for it.

There are lots of subtle ways of making this happen. Again, the commitment of senior leaders is key to enabling and embedding this.

4. The Mentoring Process is Celebrated
Good agencies thrive on celebration. And celebration usually assures that you will get more of what you are celebrating. Essentially, celebration is a subtle, but very strong, signal from leadership that what is happening is good. And desirable. And valuable.

Now this is not to suggest that there be mentoring parties. That would be way too heavy-handed. But consistent recognition of those who mentor, and the accomplishments of those whose skills improve because of mentoring, is definitely in order.

This reinforces the entire culture of the agency and the value it places on talent. And its relentless commitment to assuring that each individual grows professionally. This in turn makes it much more likely that young talent will be attracted and stay. And in turn, become positive ambassadors of the agency’s culture within the community of their external peers.

5. Resources are Available to Help Improve Mentoring Skills
Teaching mentoring from scratch is not easy. Most good mentors come to it naturally. But, there are a growing number of tools that can make a good mentor a great mentor.

Agencies in which mentoring thrives frequently underwrite courses, books, workshops, seminars, etc. in which their mentors can improve their skills.

It is a proposition in which everyone wins.

Years from Now

Wouldn’t it be nice if years from now someone you mentored today wrote down your name in remembrance? Then quietly reminisced about how you helped build her successful career. And silently expressed a long-simmering thank you.

Not a bad legacy to leave.

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