Most mentoring relationships are founded on the concept that a learned elder works with an aspiring newcomer to share knowledge and help them leap hurdles and transform their career. This model dates back to the days of guild apprenticeships, where it was assumed the protégé was a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) on which the mentor would write. At the end of the apprenticeship, you had a trained tradesperson, but the mentor was unchanged by the experience.
This old model does a disservice to the abilities and knowledge of the protégé by ignoring what the mentor may gain; it also misses the power of a symbiotic relationship to create and synthesize something neither could have accomplished alone. Symbiosis means both parties gain something from the relationship. That’s only possible if the relationship is architected to support this goal. For example, a clown fish benefits from the stinging anemone’s protection from predators, and the anemone is protected by the clown fish chasing away predators. We can learn from the lessons of these symbiotic relationships on the reef, applying them to mentoring to avoid risk to the future of the mainframe.
What’s a Mentor?
The dictionary defines a mentor as a wise and trusted counselor or teacher or an influential senior sponsor or supporter.
In the 20th century, a mentor was viewed as a guide to a younger, newer colleague. The mentor cleared the path and explained the rules (written and unwritten) in the world the protégé sought to enter. He or she trained, guided, and challenged the protégé to make rapid progress. The mainframe mentoring relationship was a one-way knowledge transfer, passing on such arcane knowledge as Job Control Language (JCL) syntax, Time Sharing Option (TSO) commands, and how to work with green-screen tools.
Mentoring later took on a whole new spin, where the focus shifted from technical to leadership skills, but it was still unidirectional. Many executives credit the assistance of their mentor for their corporate success. The goal was to become the apprentice of someone higher up the food chain who had political, social, and business skills you lacked. The relationship typically lasted a long time, though over the course of a career, you might select several mentors. Although this was a successful model in many ways, this kind of mentoring had some drawbacks:
- Usually, you had to find and cajole someone to be your mentor. Given the time commitment, this could be a challenge.
- Many people weren’t aware of mentoring opportunities and, often, these were reserved for people who appeared to be on the “fast track” to an executive position.
- Finding people who had the time and inclination to mentor could be challenging, as it was viewed as a one-way street with limited benefit accruing to the mentor.
- Even companies with established mentor programs rarely compensated, recognized, or rewarded mentors. The role was rarely one that was considered strategic.
- Technicians too often saw younger, lower-paid newbies as competition and were reluctant to help them; in a world of frequent layoffs, such fear is normal.
Many mainframers have crafted their careers with limited help and support, resorting to reading manuals, joining news groups, and learning by “the seat of their pants.” When you don’t benefit from a program, it can be difficult to see the value of participating in it. Those we expect to be mentors to the Gen-Yers haven’t had the benefits of personal experience from which to value the mentoring relationship. Besides, potential mentors would ask themselves the question, “What’s in it for me?”
The New Mentor
The definitions of many words have evolved in the 21st century. The concept of a mentor must encompass the modern understanding of human neural development and address the needs of a rapidly evolving society. Instead of a model describing a protégé as a blank block of stone on which we impress our image, we need to see protégés the way Michelangelo envisioned his blocks of marble: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Michelangelo’s quote acknowledges the value of the protégé and implies that there’s something in the relationship for the mentor. To get to that value, the premise of the relationship must change from a guru/grunt model to one of equals sharing what they know. The new mentoring relationship is a “designed alliance,” where agreement is reached between two partners who accept the rules of engagement and share the same goals. As such, new mentors may be anyone who has been at the company a little longer and who knows something the newer employee does not. The relationship bounds are defined by the pair; it may be a long-term relationship or one that lasts just a few hours.