Historically, the word Mentor originates from Greece. Ulysses had little time to groom & develop his son Telemachus. Busy with his kingly duties, and waging war on neighbours for his conquests, Ulysses asked his friend Mentor to coach, counsel and guide Telemachus during his growing years. Today’s process of Mentoring was once a proper noun and the name of the first recorded practitioner. Plutarch caught the essence, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Telemachus was a king in the making. So Mentor was charged with making Telemachus an independent thinker and doer, albeit guided and supported by the wisdom of the experienced warrior, Mentor.
Today also the Mentor is supposed to provoke and encourage, guide and support, empower and enable as the Mentee charts his/her own course. In the end, if the Mentee/Protege does not become capable and independent, the Mentoring relationship has failed! Benjamin Disraeli guides us thus, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” So true…it is about teaching a man to fish so that he becomes independent and self sufficient. Be a signpost to show the right path, but let the protege walk on his own. A lot of people, yours truly included, have gone further than they thought they could, because someone else thought they could!!
In that respect my father was the greatest mentor we siblings ever had. Even when we were unsure of ourselves, he would always sound the bugle of confidence. Around him, “I can’t do it” was unacceptable. His approach was…try it out. Till you attempt it, never say you cannot do it. And if you fail in your attempt, learn from the failure. Then try again. Success will always be yours. When I look back on my school and college education, on the diverse companies I worked in, & the jobs I handled, I indeed had to struggle often to keep my nose out of the water. But Baba? he was always sure I would emerge successful. And his confidence was so infectious that a pure play Humanities student made it to IIM Calcutta and had a very successful career whose zenith was recognition at the hands of Abdul Kalam for innovative HR practices; and successfully shouldering an Asia Pacific responsibility for Johnson & Johnson.
At IIM Calcutta, an Arts students having to understand and master the quantitative methods and math based teaching, I was at the lowest possible ebb: looking at all the IITians and smart people around me. But my Provost Dr Zahid Gangjee enabled me to see hope within myself. His deft mentoring, restored my aspirations and defined for me, a new trajectory. At the very start of my career, my experience in a highly entrepreneurial HCL, working closely with Prof. George Koreth was another high. “I am not a teacher. I am an awakener” thundered George who single handedly mentored the 7 DCM Data Products break-away engineers to form HCL, and make it grow into the main catalyst for the fledgling data processing industry in the 70s/80s. Under George’s tutelage, HCL HR was the brain to pick, the sounding board to bounce your ideas, question your strategies and iron out the glitches. We did it well and can take some credit for HCL becoming the power-horse of the IT boom in India. Mentoring Works!!! and how!!
PW Khandekar, Shrinivas Pandit, my most favorite Arun Bhende (all in Siemens); Siddharth Lalbhai, Dr Venkateshwarlu, CD Patel & Sanat Mehta (in Atul) ….looking back I wonder what I did to deserve so many brilliant minds helping and supporting me, as I was finding my way. Naren Ambwani, Pradip Shroff, Dr Ajit Dangi, Rajesh Dalal (in J&J) all contributed significantly to making me what I became. All these mentors truly epitomize what Mary Angelou had written, “In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” Their caring was the placenta within which this embryo survived and flowered.
Somewhere in the late 90s in Atul, & Siemens, & JnJ, and later General Motors, I suddenly awoke to the design of the universe. I was being given all this, so that I could give back in return, in full measure. Time came when suddenly I found the tables turning! Even as I was learning & growing, I found Mentoring being thrust on me. Suddenly I saw people expecting guidance and support from me. Now, I had to be the brain that others could pick, the ear they could talk to, a shoulder they could lean on ….and the most difficult thing….expected me to nudge them in the right direction. “Holy Smokes!!” I exclaimed, ” I am stupid guy! Don’t rely on me. I am a fool. I am still learning. I cannot claim any expertise. You are making a mistake”
Still the noise outside the door did not subside, the crowd did not move away. Slowly I understood this is the way of the universe! Life comes a full circle. And I cannot step away from the treadmill. My task in life now is to call out as I see it, and help others make their decisions, help them stand and be counted, help them become independent, and as a good Mentor….push them in the right direction. Success is when you have reached your goal, but Real Success is how many others you have helped along the way.
It is unfortunate that in Corporate India today, we have so few companies which have successful Mentoring programmes as a part of their Talent Management suite. Many understand the power of Mentoring and how it can benefit upcoming talent. Many have even started Mentoring programmes with much fanfare and aplomb. But the lack of clarity on the mechanics of Mentoring, and the inability to set the right expectations for both the Mentors and the Mentees/Proteges, have left many dead bodies, and programs, along the path!!
Of course the times have changed and so have the talent. Today’s new gen millennials who account for nearly 50% of the employees, do they still view mentors as the way we viewed them? Probably not. Our generation viewed mentoring as support to advance careers, while today’s talent need mentors to help them meet urgent learning needs or new skills. Moreover, with virtual learning the new gen doesn’t find face to face communication to be mandatory, in contrast to the good old mentor mentee relationship. Finally, earlier employees had one mentor. But now employees look for diverse connections & wider learning avenues. So, will one mentor be able to provide it all??? These are challenges for the corporates, but my request to Talent Management gurus….do not throw the baby with the bath water. Mentoring is a win win relationship.
I have lived my life to be a learner and a mentor. I know I have to be mentored -constantly!! Everything in the world has been passed down. Every piece of knowledge is something that has been shared by someone else. If you understand it as I do, mentoring becomes your true legacy. It is the greatest inheritance you can give to others. As John Wooden says,” It is why you get up every day-to teach and be taught.”
To end, I will say our karmabhoomi is Here & Now. We must make progress today and develop talent for our requirements today! I am inspired on this by Omar Khayyam, ” Men talk of heaven, – there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell, – there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk and future lives, –
O love, there is no other life – but here.”
Live to Learn & Learn to Live; Mentor and Be Mentored: vikas