“We are all teachers. Teaching is the core of humanity. It is what life is all about, passing it on—sometimes intentionally, sometimes skillfully, sometimes neither… We teach to learn.”
—Eric Liu, author of “Guiding Lights: How to Mentor and Find Life’s Purpose”
History provides important examples in every field of fruitful, even transformative, teaching and mentoring relationships: Socrates mentored Plato, Freud mentored Jung, Lorenzo de’ Medici mentored Michelangelo, Haydn mentored Beethoven, Hammerstein mentored Sondheim, Miles Davis mentored John Coltrane and Steven Spielberg mentored Kathleen Kennedy. Many, if not all, of these people have described the life-changing experiences they had as mentors.
Over the course of our careers, we develop a unique and valuable set of skills, understandings and experiences that shape who we are and our personal stories. When we share these stories, we sometimes don’t appreciate the ripple effect we set in motion. We also don’t appreciate how that sharing can change us in dramatic ways personally and professionally.
We can, and do, motivate others with our tales of obstacles overcome, resilience from loss or strategy over fear. That is why mentorship can be the greatest opportunity we have to allow us as professionals to find new meaning in giving. But, as we share these stories, we also find new meaning in our relationships with our employers and our careers. Corporations can find new ways to retain valuable employees by sending them to the classroom.
Professionals and their employers can experience five main benefits from implementing a project-based, classroom mentoring program.
First, employees develop new leadership skills through the intergenerational relationship. An adult mentor is paired with a young person from a different generation – specifically, a youth who is about to enter the workforce. Not only are worldview perceptions expanded bilaterally, but the professionals are pushed to think about their potential impact on the next generation. What they do with that responsibility is a test and often leads to a new self-awareness and growth.
Second, mentoring builds confidence. When a professional enters a classroom, students’ attention is immediately focused, and they inevitably want to know how they can follow in that professional’s footsteps. Mentors’ stories of missteps and successes, of how they solved industry problems, will be more relevant than any book the students could read.
Mentoring is not only an immediate opportunity to create a real-world impression; it is also an opportunity to leave a legacy: an unspoken yet motivating message that says, “If I can, you can.” There are few, if any, occasions a professional will experience such a significant impact on another. Employees walk away with new confidence.
Third, project based mentoring teaches character. Tim Kautz and James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, researched non-cognitive skills, such as character, motivation and goals, which are considered extremely valuable traits in the labor market today. Their studies suggest that character is a skill, not a trait; that its development is a dynamic, teachable process; and that social skills are as important as cognitive skills. They concluded that successful educational interventions should emulate mentoring environments.
Character-building is one of the most critical byproducts of a mentoring relationship. One of the greatest responsibilities a mentor takes on is an obligation to be a model of good character to his or her mentees. By being reliable, doing what they say they’ll do, demonstrating honest discourse and providing unwavering support, mentors demonstrate qualities that mentees mimic. As part of this process, mentors might reconsider their own personal and moral inventory, particularly when they are looked up to and observed.
The fourth benefit of mentoring is collaboration. As mentors lead intergenerational dialogues exploring obstacles, difficulties or new strategies, they are fostering learning. They expand their own communication skills by honing new ways of presenting complex ideas simply. In addition, mentors must exercise new levels of patience and tolerance while mentees absorb new skills. The team led by the mentor is learning how to work together toward success. Developing collaborative skills and leading the group contribute to nuanced management skills. Those are in high demand in the workplace.
Finally, the fifth benefit of project-based mentoring is perseverance, also known as grit. Both the mentor and the student witness how a hypothesis and plan shift during the project’s execution. Where the mentee experiences frustration and negativity, the overarching goal may need to be revisited or modified. The steady hand and experience of the mentor helps the mentee stay the course and provides motivation.
During these challenging times, the mentor and mentee explore how to be critical thinkers and shift the trajectory toward new outcomes. It is at the final project presentation that the team revisits its difficult pathway and discovers the importance of perseverance. These lessons not only highlight the importance of grit to the students, but they also give the mentor new rigor to bring back to the workplace.
By simply showing up and committing, a mentor cultivates five powerful messages that impact two generations simultaneously: leadership, confidence, character, collaboration and perseverance. This interactive experience not only closes the skills gap, but it’s a wonderful laboratory for workplace training. The mentor experience creates better teams of professionals and a positive workplace culture. Learning by teaching? Check.