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Who is your ‘invisible’ mentor?

Mentorship is all the rage. As young people struggle to come up in the world, they feel they need someone of accomplishment to take them under their wing, guide them, open doors for them. Success, they feel, is much easier to achieve when someone successful shows them how.

We grow up being guided by parents, older siblings, good teachers – and we want that to continue into adulthood. We yearn for more cosseting, the feeling that someone gives a damn and will smooth the path.

If that has happened for you, and you actually have a wise and accomplished mentor who’s batting for you, congratulations. It’s a potent advantage.

There are three problems with mentorship for most people, however.

First, it’s very difficult to find people who aren’t your family members who actually care about your progress. Heck, it’s hard enough even with your kith and kin. Sure, many can claim to have the uplift of others as their mission in life – but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not a commonplace thing.

Second, even if someone like that is present in your life, they will have a problem in delivering on the mentoring mission. If there’s one thing most people of accomplishment don’t have an abundance of, it’s time. They are usually too busy winning in their own lives to be able to devote too many hours to help you win in yours. Especially if there are many mentees in play. You will usually be scrabbling for tiny slots in the calendar, much postponed.

Last, what will the mentor actually teach you? There are few people with the bigness of vision to understand the individually peculiar nature of success. Most mentors understand only their own success, and distil their histories into some pithy personal principles that supposedly drive universal success. A typical mentor is often in love with his or her own story of success, and projects that onto anyone who cares to listen. Deep analysis of the mentee’s own situation, personal attributes and particular challenges? That’s rare.

The world tries to proffer a do-good solution: structured mentorship programmes. Here, a bunch of worthies and luminaries are wheeled out and commit to offering (some of) their time and advice to some deserving youngsters. This is done under a nice publicity halo and with a feel-good aura attached. Within large corporations, senior managers are often asked to participate in mentorship programmes to aid in developing a ‘talent pipeline’ for the organization. The process is mostly formulaic; the results mostly underwhelming.

Bottom line: great mentors are very, very hard to find. Mentorship is a seemingly nice idea, but rarely an effective one. We are trying to mimic the roles of parent-child, master-apprentice, guru-disciple, or even of close friends, and project them onto virtual strangers. I am not convinced it works that way. Genuine mentorship happens when there is a natural relationship or mutually shared gain between the parties, and it is not called mentorship.

So I am sceptical. Dov Frohman, a respected innovator and founder of Intel Israel, is also sceptical. But he offers a solution. In his book, Leadership The Hard Way, he asks you to seek out invisible mentors. Don’t wait to find a mentor, or be assigned one. Just choose your own, and be inspired and guided. From afar, and invisibly.

This rang true for me. I have never officially had any in-person mentors, but I know that I have had several whose work or example I have followed – even if they never know it. And that’s the point: mentorship can happen even if the mentor doesn’t know it’s happening.

Frohman’s invisible mentor was Intel’s global CEO, the legendary Andy Grove. Grove played a big role in Frohman’s life, and taught him many things. He was his model for leadership. But here’s the thing: they never discussed it. There was no structured programme. There were no check-ins or milestones. It just happened, by example. There was an enthusiastic mentee, and a mentor who didn’t know he was mentoring.

This puts the onus back on the young person. How badly do you want this, kid? Don’t wait to be mentored before you get going; get going first, and see how many natural mentors you encounter on the journey of life – and how many that can guide your path, without even meeting you.

Can this actually happen, you ask? Of course it can – and does. We all have people who set a systematic example for us, and very often they don’t know it. Next week, I’ll tell you about some of the invisible mentors who have shaped my life.

(Sunday Nation, 4 February 2018)

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