On Leadership: Building a Mentoring Culture

If you’re like me, you didn’t get to where you are in life without someone mentoring you. Had it not been for the strong guidance and personal involvement of at least a half-dozen very good leaders, I would have failed miserably in the many challenges I have faced professionally.

But what is mentoring, really? Is it a “do-gooder” thing that we do only when we have time, or an essential leadership development component for every business? Try this fact: according to a Wall Street Journal survey, over 70% of Fortune 500 firms have a formal mentoring program. So mentoring is obviously a money-making enterprise, as well.

At the individual level, mentoring begins by someone taking a personal interest—someone who really understands and is willing to extend themselves above and beyond a basic business relationship. It involves offering a real connection of trust, communication, and mutual benefit to another person who’s just starting out. But while mentoring is intensely personal, contractor firms and unions also play an important role. They need to promote and address mentoring in a strategic manner, transforming it from an informal, “old school” tradition into a planned, thoughtful process of connecting young people with older talent inside their various organizations.

But mentoring – this incredibly powerful and positive force – now seems at risk of extinction within our industry. I was unaware of the decline until quite recently, but the proof seems overwhelming. I have had the privilege of speaking to many gatherings of contractors and supervisors over the past few years. The audiences vary, but almost always there are a good number of gray-haired contractors, foremen, and journeymen. I have asked those audiences the same question over and over: “How many of you have had someone mentor you for success?” Without exception, almost 95% of the older, more experienced guys raise their hands. But when I ask a follow-up question – “How many of you now are taking a personal interest in mentoring someone in your company or industry?” – only about a third of them indicate that they are actively involved in mentoring someone.

With the talent development needs of our industry today, owners and managers of companies need to send a strong, simple message to their veteran employees: this industry cannot survive the death of mentoring.

I asked the guys who weren’t mentoring to explain why. Here are some of the most common responses:

• “The kids today aren’t worth being mentored—they are spoiled or entitled.”
• “It’s not worth the time—I don’t get rewarded or recognized for it.”
• “I don’t have the personal time to do it—we’re moving too fast.”
• “I just don’t think about it that much.”

On the other hand, when I ask the young guys why they think they can’t find mentoring opportunities, they say the following:

• “They [the older guys] don’t want to teach us because we could be a threat to their jobs.”
• “They think mentoring is yelling at us or toughening us up instead of showing us how to succeed in the work and the industry.”
• “No one has offered, and I wouldn’t know how to find or ask someone.”

We must ensure that the next generation coming up is not only as good as the previous one (ours), but even better. Why? To bolster the construction industry and ensure it remains competitive well into the future, for one thing. If we don’t, then the craftworker ranks will begin to dwindle. And fewer people paying into the system will spell disaster for the stability of the pensions that veteran foremen and journeymen are counting on to get them through retirement. Mentoring is a no-compromise strategic necessity. Despite all of the excellent training, relevant curriculums, and strong leadership we offer, no one factor has more upside potential for influencing performance than mentoring.

I would like to suggest seven leadership strategies for promoting and strengthening the art of mentoring:

1. Every contractor should go to each of their supervisors and ask them who they are mentoring. Everyone should be actively developing at least one younger person. This has to become part of their job expectation—not just for the guys that “get it.”

2. Discuss with that foreman the purpose of mentoring and determine if they clearly understand the benefits and the best methodologies.

3. Union leaders must reinforce the importance of mentoring at their next union meeting and at least one time per year in the future.

4. Every leader should tie the message of mentoring to the long-term benefits (as in, who is going to pay for that old guy’s pension) in order to break down any old-school thinking about not teaching the new guys out of fear or insecurity.

5. Apprentice schools should teach new guys the importance of mentoring and encourage them to do it for each other as they rise through the trades together.

6. Finally, everyone who is reading this must step up to the plate. Find one more person to mentor personally. If all the readers of this magazine heeded that call, we could add so many new mentoring relationships with that one simple step.

The gift of mentoring keeps on giving—I’m the perfect example. And I’m all in. I am mentoring five young guys right now. I am a pretty busy person, but I have been doing this for the past ten years. I meet with them monthly. I hear about life, work, marriages, dreams, problems, and more. Mostly, I listen. When I do speak, I know it really matters. I see them changing their lives right in front of me. My pay-off is the realization that I have done the right thing for the right reason and for the right people. And if in the process I can help our industry succeed, then that is even a greater incentive. This is a quiet kind of leadership that is available to all of us.

As you go on with your business today, ask yourself what valuable life lessons you have learned. There are people out there right now who need to hear those lessons and listen to your guidance. They’re waiting. Don’t let the great tradition of mentoring die.