Each One, Teach One

Mentoring from the corporate world to the academic

Pamela Tipton

Director of Executive Programs, Goizueta Business School

Pam TiptonShe stood at the front of the room, by all appearances poised and in command. Visually compelling slides projected to the main screen, the audience attentive. She ended her presentation and invited questions and discussion with the executive committee. You could hear a pin drop—the death knell for the project and proposal she had spent long hours researching and perfecting. 

As she left the boardroom, mumblings began around the table: “Were you aware this was in the works?” “Did your folks have any input into the operational implications for this project?” “There were some great ideas in the proposal, but apparently no consideration for cross-organizational impacts.” Deflated, “Elizabeth” plopped into a plump leather chair in the reception area to await her VP’s emergence from the board room. Confident her proposal would knock their socks off, she was surprised by the lackluster response. She had been sure this proposal would be her ticket to promotion. Couldn’t they see how smart she was? 

At the time of the presentation, Elizabeth had just begun her first year as an Evening MBA student at Goizueta Business School. She recounted the scenario in class with unvarnished disbelief. Clearly those people just didn’t get it. What went wrong? Some MBA faculty will attest that the overconfident students are the ones who flounder early in their careers, especially those with low self-awareness about how he or she is perceived, how his or her behaviors impact others, and how she or he builds relationships. Each of these factors impacts an individual’s ability to influence. 

Enter Elizabeth’s mentor/coach in the Goizueta Leadership Academy, a program established primarily for the purpose of elevating the self-awareness and leadership capacity of early and mid-career working professionals. Along with seminars taught by Goizueta faculty, her mentor brought real life experiences from more than twenty years in corporate leadership. Understanding political nuances and honing influence skills are just two areas explored during the six-month Leadership Academy program. 

Mentoring can take many forms, both formal and informal, and can occur in any type of institution—corporate, academic, not-for-profit, governmental. The key ingredients remain constant: a mentee self-aware enough to recognize the need and benefit of a mentor and a mentor with the experiences and desire to help others grow and develop. In the corporate world, more and more research suggests that career progression, especially for women, hinges in large part on whether an individual has a mentor or sponsor who can coach to the political trip hazards, guide leadership competency-building, and invest relationship capital to help mentees move ahead. 

The Atlanta division of a national bank, for example, enlists the support of the boutique consulting firm Pathbuilders to offer designated high potential managers the opportunity to participate in a structured mentoring program. The program individually pairs participants with more senior leaders. Participants and leaders alike have been interviewed to tease out developmental needs and career enhancing experiences, respectively, that align to create strong partnership matches. Mentor and mentee training educational seminars, mentoring module discussion guides, and regular check-ins provide the needed guardrails to help keep mentoring partnerships on track. 

The Leadership Academy at Goizueta is but one of the business school’s several constructs for mentoring. In certain custom Executive Education programs, for example, we’ve built peer mentoring into the leadership development component. This structure affords participants the opportunity to practice coaching skills in a safe environment while benefiting from the perspective and experiences of a trusted peer. A development plan constructed from 360 feedback marks the deliverable at the end of each four-month partnership. 

The Goizueta Mentor Program connects any interested business school student (undergrad or graduate) with alumni located domestically or abroad. Goals for this program are threefold: offer professional and life skills mentoring in a one-on-one partnership, enhance alumni connectivity to the school, and highlight the importance and effectiveness of relationships built within the Goizueta network. 

Less formal mentoring also takes place: Steve Walton, a faculty member seasoned in facilitating executive MBA and executive education programs, has helped faculty less experienced with the executive audience elevate their facilitating skills. One such benefactor commented that Steve can see something in you that you don’t see and help you become a better version of yourself. After Steve’s coaching, this faculty member went from dead last in student ratings to a consistent presence in the top. Another faculty member, Brandon Smith, mentors colleagues on effectively incorporating storytelling into their teaching toolkit. 

What are the constants across all these forms of mentoring? What makes a good mentoring relationship? It depends. For less formal or ad hoc mentoring relationships, the fundamental ingredients I mentioned above, in addition to a few others, apply:

  • a mentee self-aware enough to recognize his or her blind spots and who is open to help from others with more experience in those blind spot areas;
  • a mentor who has the desire to see others grow and succeed and who is in the right season of life to have the experiences from which he or she can draw to show the way; 
  • clearly articulated goals regarding what the mentee seeks to accomplish or improve upon (for example, I want to understand how to better integrate story-telling into my teaching methods);
  • a mutual agreement about the how much time each partner is willing to commit to the relationship and for how long (for example, would you be willing to have coffee a couple of times over the next month to explore this topic and perhaps observe my teaching approaches at least once this quarter, followed by your feedback?).

Choosing a mentor for the less formal mentoring relationship is where things can be a bit tricky. Like attracts like, so our human tendency is to find someone like us, just more “mature.” On the contrary, your best opportunity for change will occur with a mentor who pokes you in the side rather than one who pats you on the head. Said differently, consider someone who excels in an area you want to develop, will challenge you to grow and who will also hold you accountable for change. 

For more structured programs, there are several fundamental ingredients:

  • a solid, rational partnership match objectively based on a mentee’s underlying developmental needs (not just the spoken needs) matched to an individual with the desire to help others and experiences aligned with the mentee’s particular development need(s);
  • time-bound, written partnership goals grounded in the mentee’s short and longer-term developmental goals;
  • a written or spoken confidentiality agreement;
  • agreement on the frequency of meetings and the acceptable form(s) and frequency of communication; meetings should be no less frequent than once per month;
  • common understanding about who will drive the relationship (it should be the mentee), whether meetings will have an agenda, and how you will overcome scheduling challenges;
  • some form of content and/or discussion guide that offers thought-leading questions, especially during the early stages of partnership formation.

What are the lessons for higher education from corporate-based mentoring programs? Just as mentees should seek mentors who represent some difference and opportunity for change, faculty seeking mentors might face head-on the challenge of breaking down the silos between schools. The natural structures within higher education create expected challenges for broader informal mentoring. Departments and schools are physically separated into different buildings, making professional network extensions unnatural unless you sit on a university-wide committee, not to mention the cultural norm of rarely crossed staff/faculty lines and the hierarchies of faculty ranks and tenure status. 

How did Elizabeth’s mentor help her grow from her painful experience in that boardroom? Together they conducted a post-mortem, of sorts, to learn how she could have gained broad-based support for her project before the big reveal. She focused on stakeholder analysis—identifying the likely benefactors, detractors, and key influencers for the project she proposed based on the degree to which the project may impact the influencer, positively or negatively. Next, she diagnosed the missed opportunities for gaining broader input and support from these key influencers. This post-mortem approach shed light on best practices Elizabeth successfully executed on a project just six weeks later. 

Are you a closet mentor? Do you have experiences that may benefit others? If so, seek out opportunities to share your experiences with others in different parts of the university. Are you a closet mentee, experiencing professional development opportunities that you are willing to work on? If so, seek someone with connections in other parts of the university and explore together to find a potential mentor to work with you in a confidential setting. In the words of the old proverb, “Each one, Teach one.” Happy mentoring!

Seek a mentor when you 

  • Want to elevate your performance in a certain area
  • Want to elevate your management, leadership, or other competencies
  • Are at a career cross-roads, transition, or change in focus