Great Mentors Get Out of the Office

Sep 10, 2012 3:25 PM ET

Great Mentors Get Out of the Office

Without the mentoring of my high school coach, I (Bill) would have never been able to achieve the success I did. I was cut from the junior varsity basketball team. The varsity coach took me to the Boys and Girls Club, paid the $2 membership and told me if I practice every day he would put me on the varsity team. His belief in me made me realize I had the potential to be successful. We went on to win three straight state championships.

Research increasingly confirms how critical it is for young people to have caring mentors. But here is the real secret about mentoring that we've both learned through our work at the MENTOR partnership: The mentors frequently learn as much as the students. In the corporate world, formal mentoring programs make sure newer employees are learning all they need to be successful. But, just as importantly, these programs enable mentoring managers to sharpen their skills and become better leaders by interacting with their more junior colleagues.

Similarly, youth mentoring can also be rewarding to your career. New managers can benefit by serving as mentors for kids in need of a compassionate, responsible adult: It not only benefits mentees and society as a whole, but also helps develop practical knowledge and leadership skills that can be applied back to the office.

At my (Nancy's) company Ernst & Young, we have been recognized as a leading learning organization, not only because we focus on mentoring in-house for professional development, but also because we encourage our employees to volunteer outside the office. For example, employees mentor at the firm-sponsored College MAP to help students from disadvantaged high schools apply to college. In fact, thousands of our people mentor in their communities. They not only gain a tremendous sense of satisfaction from it, they also gain experience that impacts their careers in positive ways.

Here is what you can expect to bring back to the office, if you decide to offer a young person your time and concern:

Getting comfortable with difference: Today's managers can expect to be part of diverse teams, so they need to be inclusive and to find ways to get the best from every team member. Mentoring is a great way to learn those cross-cultural skills. Since matching young people with mentors of the same race and ethnicity alone is less effective than matching them based on shared interests and goals, mentors are often paired with kids from social and economic cultures different from their own. At Ernst & Young, we find that after spending time with a diverse population of students in inner-city schools, many College MAP volunteers find that they are able to interact more confidently with people from all walks of life.

Reciprocal wisdom: A good mentoring relationship, like all successful relationships, is a two-way street. You may find your entire outlook altered by a young person whose life experiences have made her mature beyond her years. When I (Nancy) met a very capable manager in his 20s two years ago at an event in Seattle, I thought I'd be the one offering the advice. And indeed, we did talk about the manager's career and how I could sponsor him as he progressed. But a few months ago, he confided in me that when he was a child in Africa, his family had to cross a desert during wartime to escape the conflict, depending on camels to survive. He counseled me that to lead in difficult times, I needed to be a camel: to convey steadiness, consistency, and calm to all the people around me. It's great advice that I think of often. When you become a mentor, you gain as much wisdom as you impart.

Practical knowledge and exposure: Each generation has its own favored communication tools, and you may be shocked at how much you profit personally and professionally from the savvy of the young. For example, if you mentor a young person who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, you may gain a social media tutor in the process. You may also learn about what music, fashion, or new technology is gaining favor with youth, and you may come out of the experience with your horizons broadened. Being a mentor to a young person outside of the office also puts you in a new setting and challenges you to find ways to solve problems and offer guidance to help your mentee to excel — a skill you'll also need as a manager.

Youth mentoring may be good for your career, but there's also no ignoring the overwhelming need for good mentors. There are 15 million American children who could use a mentor, but don't yet have one. Full disclosure: This is a cause that's dear to us — both of us serve on the board of MENTOR, which works to promote mentorship for needy children between the ages of 6 and 18. We're actually holding our annual MENTOR's Champions Golf Challenge this weekend to call attention to the need for more mentors.

If you give even one of these kids a hand, no question, you are not only helping your career, but also helping to build a more educated workforce and a richer, happier society. There are no "other people's children" in the United States. They are the next generation of Americans. Let's help them succeed.