05 July 2018

Leveraging Leadership: The Power of Modern Mentorship 

by Natalie van der Veen

We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone that it can respect, by whose example it can make inner sanctum more available. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts.

Mentorship is prolific amongst leading businesses, with an American Society for Training and Development study revealing that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have a form of formal corporate mentorship.

Mentorship is prolific amongst leading businesses, with an American Society for Training and Development study revealing that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have a form of formal corporate mentorship.

It is remarkable that ancient reflections underpin one of the fastest growing industries in the world – that is, self-discovery and improvement interventions like coaching and mentorship. There is something deeply profound about having someone witness both successes and shortcomings; it invites a sense of personal accountability and empowerment that has fast-become an enabler of management and leadership potential.

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" This philosophical wisdom can easily apply to the role of witness within one’s own navigation of personal mastery. If no one hears your commitment of action, what is the likelihood of achievement?

What if we were to replace the word witness – mentorship is a leadership capability often under-utilised within business. This may be due to increasing demand on senior management, leaving them little time to invest in the upskilling of those seeking growth and opportunity. Or it may be attributed to it being the first time in history that we have five distinct generations in the workplace at the same time; possibly lending itself to a sense of overwhelm, given the amount of disruption versus legacy, each  competing for centre stage within organisations and creating a tangible rift between millennials, who demand a sense of innovation and individuality; and baby boomers who harvest established, albeit sometimes stale, wisdom that appropriately informed the initial success and sustainability of their organisations.

And yet, from graduate programmes to new recruits; from those looking to take their career to the next level to those battling to keep up with the herd, mentorship remains a buzzword frequently put forward to support development. The understanding of the definition of mentor appears to be universal. Rarely would one find someone in business who is unable to define the role of an individual imparting their knowledge and understanding of their area of expertise to someone less experienced.

A simple desktop search reveals many global mentorship programmes delivered as standalone training, curated support content or formal organisational interventions. Mentorship is prolific amongst leading businesses, with an American Society for Training and Development study revealing that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have a form of formal corporate mentorship. The same study found that 75% of executives credit their mentors with helping them to achieve their leadership position.

This may contribute to Google’s success at attracting some of the best bright and young minds. The tech giant boasts over 8 300 formal mentors globally, as part of their Summer of Code programme. Bringing it home, Google Africa launched Google Launchpad and Google Play to further drive a culture of mentorship across the continent.


Google appears to be a trailblazer within the application of mentorship but there are many other local giants actively driving formal mentorship agendas, including Investec, UNICEF and Discovery. Mentorship is acutely linked to enhancing social-entrepreneurship, a firm lever for South Africa’s economy.

In addition to the corporate market, there are smaller businesses delivering mentorship to entrepreneurs, including Dream Girls and Bizco. Again, Google Launchpad dominates this agenda, harvesting global best practice and making it accessible to local entrepreneurs to pioneer new business in Africa.

With the importance of mentorship being apparent, the question is then, how many of us know how to mentor? More than that, how many of us are aware of our role as mentee? That’s correct – it is not only up to the mentor to impart wisdom and learnings from experience. There is thinking to be done on behalf of the mentee to ensure the success of the relationship.

Alison Reid, Director of Gordon Institute of Business Science ("GIBS") Personal and Applied Learning Department, offers the following tips when preparing to engage a mentor: 

  • Once you have thought of some of the areas you would like to be mentored in, what might help is to think of people in your life who may demonstrate competency (in terms of what that means to you) and approach them. If you don’t yet know people who demonstrate these qualities/ competencies, you have at least begun an important process of knowing what to look out for and can start actively asking and keeping an eye out for these people who can best assist you.
  • Take on most of the effort upfront in terms of thinking through what you want to be mentored on, and why. As mentee, you would then approach someone with a request, for example, ‘please could you mentor me on how to successfully network with individuals like you do with your network’ rather than ‘please mentor me’, which then puts pressure on the mentor to work out what this means to you.

  • Try to think of a way to make the relationship mutually beneficial: if you position the relationship in a way that clearly also benefits the mentor, you again make it easy for them to enthusiastically agree to design a mentoring relationship with you, even if they are short on time.

If you, as mentee, spend time thinking about how you would like the relationship to enhance your role and development within your organisation, the relationship will naturally evolve into a gift to both the mentor and mentee. The mentor is not only flattered by your request for mentorship, but also often finds him- or herself challenged to perform optimally to ensure pertinent experience and learning, as well as motivated to seek improvements and gather more information to maintain the relevance of their role as mentor.

A good mentor is one who displays passion when sharing experiences, and empathy when imparting wisdom. The mentor must balance the traditional role of telling and yelling with one of evoking thinking in another person, inviting the mentee to self-reflect and maintain a curious mindset. The mentor’s curiosity means considering the possibility of learning from someone less experienced. That is the gift of mentorship: the mentor’s confidence will mean that, instead of only ever offering his or her preferred solution or advice as the only option, the mentor will encourage independent thinking from the mentee’s point of view. It is important for the mentor to grow the mentee’s ability to find his or her own solution, as anyone is more likely to commit to their own thinking, thus driving accountability.

A frequent conundrum – considering a mentor but finding it difficult to choose? Too often we assume that the role of mentor is exclusive and cannot be shared; that when selecting a mentor, we should consider it an opportunity to flatter a significant stakeholder. In my very first job, I recall asking my director to be my mentor, as if I was asking someone on a date. Blushing with embarrassment, it was evident from the very beginning that I felt completely intimidated and pursued the relationship only because it was deemed the right thing to do. But I had given no thought to the actual pearls of wisdom I wanted to eject from her power bank. Her influence on my career meant that I did not want to be vulnerable; it was impossible for me to ask the necessary questions and gain the necessary learning, purely because of her stake in my career. Naturally, nothing came of the relationship and I was left with only the memory of rejection. What had gone wrong?

As a mentee, it is important to remember that you will be witnessed; to harvest the best learning, you need to be authentic (yes, that word), revealing your uncertainties and insecurities with the ambition of gaining knowledge.

It is therefore important to consider the following:

  • You can have more than one mentor; in fact, it is encouraged. Having several mentors means leveraging their unique areas of expertise to develop you own diverse library of acumen.
  • They may be a witness, but that does not make you judge; remember to maintain an open mind. It can be equally intimidating for the mentor as they strive to showcase only the best version of themselves.

  • A mentorship partnership is not a marriage. Write down why you selected your mentor in the first place and ensure you cultivate all you can to grow that specific gap in your knowledge bank; then move on, seeking different perspectives and developing fresh skills.

Whether you are well-positioned as mentor or mentee within your organisation, embrace the opportunity. It is a gift of learning for both.

Find out more at: www.gibs.co.za/mentoring2018