A couple of weeks back, I spent an evening in my hometown of Woodstock, Illinois.
The city's annual Barndance—like cows and corn, barns are still plentiful in this small town an hour's drive northwest from Chicago—serves as a cancer fundraiser, and simultaneously is a great reason for everyone in town to get together. As a recent returnee to the Midwest, I had a chance to reconnect with people I hadn't talked to in 30-plus years.
"You'll see almost everybody here," one friend told me. "People we knew in school, even teachers come out."
Impulsively I asked about Chris Strong, one of our former English instructors who I consider to be one of my early mentors.
Indeed he was coming, my friend said. We tracked him down and after a few minutes refreshing the memories of long-past English classes at good ol' Woodstock High—go Blue Streaks!—I told Mr. Strong how he inspired me as I pondered my path in life. We talked for a while, promised to connect on Facebook (I still haven't) and parted with a warm handshake.
It was a completely spontaneous moment for me, but Mr. Strong seemed genuinely appreciative that I wanted to say hello. I walked away glad that I could tell him what he meant to me personally and professionally.
It's safe to say we've all had our own version of Mr. Strong, whether it was an instructor, colleague, boss, friend—or if you are like me, check all of the above.
My gurus have, for lack of a better term, sprouted up around me organically. Observation and experience have served me well.
While inspiring, committed mentors like Mr. Strong exist in the workplace, I fear they're a vanishing breed. Even mentors with that innate, natural ability to inspire need a climate of sustained corporate support, including a healthy sprinkling of training to grow and flourish.
Maintaining or even initiating such a philosophy these days is easier said than done. After several years of fiscal malaise in this "work-more" era of employees swamped with multiple tasks, let's be honest: Who has time to be a mentor?
Showing a newbie to the kitchen is one thing, but taking 30 minutes or so out of your day to observe someone's work is a huge obligation. Even if it's broken up—two minutes here, 10 minutes there—it can still take up 2½ hours out of your week. You do the math over the course of a month or a year. Ultimately, it adds up to a big commitment of time and energy.
A pre-recession mentor-program primer I found is naively comical: "How do you hang on to your brightest young talent and prepare them to lead? Simple: Recruit your more experienced employees to help teach and guide them."
Simple indeed. How early-2008.
Even in the best-staffed situations, striking the right relationship between the old hand and the greenhorn is a crapshoot. Potential personality clashes aside, too much structure is metrics-driven, form-filling overkill; a lack of oversight leaves both sides in the dark with the learner frustrated at what to do.
Which is not to say that I am authoring a new book titled Sink or Swim: How's the Deep End of the Work Pool, Kid?. To coin a really overused phrase, mentoring these days takes a village.
With our new intern Max coming onboard soon, one of our staffers will be his go-to person for the basics. But really, it's on all of us to help Max get the most out his experience, and, conversely, for us to get the most out of Max.
What Max takes away from his time with me will hopefully not be my in-depth explanation of a defined benefit vs. a defined contribution plan. Ten years from now if Max and I bump into each other at a barn dance in the boonies, my professional discourse on the nuances of onboarding might be forgotten in favor of an informal chat about career paths or our most influential bands. Does that make me a mentor? I think so.
Actually, I'd like to be among the Chris Strongs in Max's life, which reminds me: I have someone to friend on Facebook.
Rick Bell is Workforce Management's managing editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Workforce Management, August 2012, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!