I often encounter people seeking mentoring.  What are they usually seeking?  My sense is that they are facing one or more dilemmas.  They are seeking help to make sense of and address these dilemmas.

One dilemma is that they are facing an important decision about what to do next in their careers.  They can see soon completing their PhDs and don’t see the right future for them.  They do not want to replicate their PhD advisor, in part because of limited realistic opportunities in the current chaos of higher education.

Another dilemma concerns those who do not want to pursue academia, but do not understand opportunities available in industry and government.  They have no role models for such endeavors and do not see where they might lead.  This is, of course, due to them not having relationships with any faculty members who have done this.

A third dilemma involves people needing, voluntarily or otherwise, to consider alternative futures.  These are typically talented people who stayed in positions that no longer met their needs, but they had been unwilling to seriously consider alternative career paths.  In other words, they had been stuck.

Their first question typically is, “What opportunities do you think I should pursue?”  I avoid this question.  Instead, I pose another question, “What would you find sufficiently interesting and rewarding that you would look forward to spending every working day doing it?”

This might lead to responses such as NFL quarterback, MET opera star, or famous writer, but it seldom does.  Instead, people respond with answers such as:

  • “Figuring out solutions to tough technical problems.”
  • “Helping people deal with their health problems.”
  • “Teaching students about science and ecology.”
  • “Finding ways to help people be more energy efficient.”

Admittedly, the people I encounter are not necessarily representative of the whole population.

Given their response, we then discuss how these needs are currently addressed in terms of organizations, offerings, and current success.  The overarching question is, “Are there realistic opportunities to do this by joining one of the current players?”  If the answer is positive, “Is the compensation associated with these opportunities sufficient?”

Often, this is an important hurdle.  If so, I then ask, “Can you imagine a value proposition where society would be willing to better compensate you?”  People are usually fairly creative at this point.  As they propose approaches, we continually ask, “Why isn’t somebody already doing this?”

A common answer is, “XYZ company could do this but they aren’t.”  I suggest that they have two choices – join XYZ or compete with them.  The next stage of mentoring involves helping them to engage with XYZ.  We tell them that we, as an academic think tank, have been studying them and wondered why they have not expanded their value proposition to include the idea we have developed.

This is usually an important learning experience.  We may learn that our idea does not make sense.  More often, we learn why their corporate culture and infrastructure could not embrace this idea.  We propose to help them adopt this idea.  Sometimes they accept this help, but often we do not gain traction.  Then, we may proceed on our own, but often this does not make sense.

Either way it is a tremendous learning experience for those being mentored.  They now have an initial understanding of what it takes to innovate in an arena of particular interest to them.  They also gain experience in developing a line of reasoning for how to explore alternative futures driven by their interests, not just what jobs seem to be available.

It seems to me that we should provide students with more than just knowledge and skills, and we should provide employees with more than just jobs, tasks, and pay.  Human capital should be developed so people become increasingly more valuable to organizational performance, market innovations, and economic growth, both narrowly within their organizations and broadly across society.

The scorecards for all supervisors, managers, and executives should include mentoring.  The question is not how much they have improved their own resumes, but how much they have improved everybody else’s resumes.  Success is not just a matter of having the best athletes; it requires having the best team.

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