The Importance of Mentorship

Posted by Deena Mirow Epstein, Apr 06, 2010 10 comments

As a baby boomer, I have started to think not only about retirement, which is looming over the horizon, but also about how to better relate to the 20 and 30-somethings who are waiting in the wings and how to help prepare them to take on leadership roles.

At the George Gund Foundation, I have become the mentor for participants in our Gund Fellows program, an informal position that has offered me the chance to work with some extremely bright, energetic and talented young people. It has been incredibly rewarding and has been a growth experience for me as well as for them. Being able to “payback” by passing along my experience and knowledge has been fulfilling, and they have exposed me to new ideas I might otherwise have missed.

And yet, I find not enough members of my generation willing to extend themselves as mentors or even consider these young people as peers for peer-to-peer learning. On two occasions recently, “emerging leaders” I met in my work as a program officer, have expressed frustration that they either have been put-down or not taken seriously by older, more-experienced co-workers. In one case, a young person was told by a more senior co-worker that she was not considered a colleague because she did not have the experience of the older worker. Needless to say, she was deeply offended.

It seems to me that my generation has a responsibility to help prepare the next generation of leaders by being open to mentorship opportunities—both formal and informal—and remembering what is what like oh-so-many- years-ago when someone extended a welcome hand of friendship, learning and sharing to us as we started our careers.

10 responses for The Importance of Mentorship


April 09, 2010 at 10:57 am

I think this is a great idea in theory, for all of the reasons you mention. In practice, my only concern is that it seems like board members (especially at larger organizations) are often brought on not for their functional expertise, but rather for their money and/or connections. That gets into broader governance issues and obviously isn't necessarily the way it ought to be, but given that it's often the case I would just want to make sure that mentorships that were somehow obligated or "for show" wouldn't end up being a waste of time or worse, counterproductive. But if it were a voluntary program or policy of the organization, I suspect that self-selection would iron a lot of those difficulties out.

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April 08, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Deena's embrace of mentoring younger colleagues and instituting it as a regular part of her intra-organizational responsibilities at the Gund Foundation provokes me to pose a question about the supply and demand of mentors and mentees and propose a solution to bringing them into balance.

If every non profit is required to have a board of directors, and if people are invited to join a board because they have some skills/knowledge/experience that can make the non profit stronger, and if every non profit has emerging (or even emerged!) staff members/volunteers/artists who can benefit from mentorship, can we make being a mentor an ordinary, expected, form of board service?

Here is why I think this might make good sense:

1) The incentives for both parties are well aligned: making the organization stronger.

2) The learning opportunities are mutual: junior staff member gets to learn about the board member's area of expertise and practice skill development and the board member gets one-on-one time with a staff member to learn about what the organization they are there to help govern does in greater detail (and from a different vantage point) than they do at a board meeting or through exclusive communication with a senior staff person.

3) Its cost effective: this is a way of transferring knowledge and enhancing organizational effectiveness that has a very low dollar cost.

4) It feels good: people join boards because as Deena writes about mentorship, they want to give something back. They are rewarded by the awesome feeling that comes from making a unique contribution and helping someone to learn a new skill, or to carry a good idea forward, or simply to figure out the answer to a riddle.

5) It builds esprit de corps and gets everyone in an organization on the same page: frequently staff members (especially junior staff) and artists have little to zero interaction with their board. They don't know who they are, they don't know which way they want the organization for which they work to go, and they don't have opportunities to provide feedback to them about how well or poorly decisions taken on the board level are playing out in their day to day operations. One by-product of making regular, structured one to one conversations between people at the 'top' of an organization and the 'bottom," may well be that everyone gets a better understanding of which way they need to be rowing so that the boat they're all on heads in the same direction and gets to where they're going faster. And, as anyone who has had a good mentoring relationship knows, they may also find that they make a new, unlikely, friends as well.

I know from past experience as an E.D. recruiting board members and then managing them that issues of time commitment and focus militate against asking Board members to take on more than they are already doing, but I think they may be able to fulfill their board responsibilities (to understand the organization's finances, to hire people in leadership positions, to raise money, to develop strategic plans, to forge connections with important allies, etc.) more efficiently if they dedicate some time on a consistent basis (one lunch a month?) to meeting with a junior staff member. I also think some of them might really like it.

Oh, and lest we fall into the trap that Edward mentions above of conceiving these relationships as wizened elders deigning to impart the secrets of life to naifs climbing up the mountain seeking enlightenment, I think that if the board member is 23 and the junior staff member is 63, that sounds like a pretty cool mentorship/mentee relationship too.

Thoughts? Is this already happening in practice?

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Sally says
April 06, 2010 at 2:56 pm

First, I want to thank you for serving as a mentor, for encouraging, educating and helping those younger and/or less experienced than yourself. You, no doubt, have made a difference to individuals and to the profession. Thank you.

I also appreciate that you have raised this subject. I think mentoring can serve a very important role in professional development, yet few people step forward and offer to mentor. I am not certain why this is. Are people concerned about the time commitment? Concerned about extending themselves too much?

For years, quite literally, I have wanted to form a mentoring relationship with someone who would be willing to offer advice and guidance. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and ask the "stupid" questions of would be so helpful to me in my professional development. However, as I am not certain how to go about finding a mentor. Advice or guidance in this area would be welcome.

I think this mentorship an important subject to discuss and hope others agree.

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April 06, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I definitely agree Sally! The thing about mentorship is that when we look at it from a traditional model, a wizened professional bestowing knowledge upon a talented young protege, there is a "what's in it for me?" question involved for the person in power. When mentorship becomes an exchange where all parties have something to teach and something to learn, the incentive to participate in such a relationship becomes more palpable.

True mentorships need to be made explicit. While casual learning happens all of the time, to get the most from a mentoring experience you have to put it out there in black and white. Figure out what someone has to offer you, figure out what you have to offer them, and then just straight up ask: "Wanna engage in a mentoring relationship with me?" A true leader would be hard pressed to say no...

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Sally says
April 06, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Wonderful response Edward!

You are so right, when mentorship is an exchange, rather than a top down type of approach, the experience become more meaningful and more rewarding for both parties.

I also appreciate the idea of making mentorship explicit. I think this approach would create a framework for both parties. This would also require that the person hoping to learn from the mentor do a bit of legwork, so to speak, and have an idea of what it is they hope to gain from the relationship. I do hope your belief that a true leader would find it difficult to say no if asked directly to be a mentor.

Now, who to ask....

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April 06, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Thanks for your post Deena! Based on the research I have conducted on the interests of emerging arts professionals, one of the most striking things that my colleagues and I are seeing is a hunger from young people to engage in mentoring relationships with their superiors. This hunger is due to a paucity of mentoring that is actually occurring in the field. It's great that folks like yourself "extend their hands" to individuals of my generation to offer your time-earned wisdom and experience.

However, it is important for Baby Boomer and Silent Generation arts professionals to remember that top-down traditional mentorship is not the only form of mentorship. In addition to having much to learn, younger arts professionals have much to teach their senior colleagues! For this reason, individuals in the field need to consider "mentoring up" as an important part of the exchange of knowledge and expertise that will drive all members of the field forward, and help us be far more efficacious in our work.

Considering alternative approaches to mentorship such as mentoring up, of course, is not easy. Not only does it require senior arts leaders to take on mentees, but it also requires these individuals to humble themselves and consider that they, too, have much to learn.


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April 06, 2010 at 10:07 am

I completely agree- looking back at the same thing when I was younger, I am so very thankful for the ones that did consider me a peer!
I would love to help in any way that I can-

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April 06, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I think this argument about mentorship and what may be the motivation (or not) for a seasoned leader to take on the training of a protege as an extra risk, chore, liability, etc., is pretty interesting. Whenever I hear this, two things come to mind. The first is that which I've previously explained: young leaders need to identify what they have to offer as barter, the second is a thought question: why did Yoda bother to train Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi Knight? Clearly he didn't have to, but he did. Watch a few hours of Star Wars and get back to me...

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April 06, 2010 at 10:25 am

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April 06, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Hi, everybody. What I always want to hear more about in discussions about mentoring are the benefits for the more seasoned leader. Mentoring is clearly desired by emerging leaders who have a lot to benefit from a mentoring relationship early in their career. Sometimes we forget to talk about what's in for the seasoned leader. Perhaps it's precisely that traditional mentoring is often conceived of as top-down that it's difficult for seasoned leaders to see it as more than a drain to their psyche and soul.

Deena, you wrote "Being able to 'payback' by passing along my experience and knowledge has been fulfilling, and they have exposed me to new ideas I might otherwise have missed." This is wonderful and we need to hear more from those with experience about the real value of being a mentor!

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