Successful Supervisor Part 52 – Successful Mentoring

November 11, 2017

Mentoring is one of the most powerful ways organizations can improve. When you see organizations that thrive, you often see a culture that encourages and rewards employees for mentoring others.

Over several decades I have seen numerous “mentoring programs,” and most of them don’t last very long or have much success. I have also seen groups that thrive on mentoring, such that it is sustained and grows with time.

This brief article is about the contrast between those two visible extremes.

Why Mentoring Programs Fail

The core reason mentoring programs fail is imbedded in the word “program.” When we think of a mentoring effort as a mechanical process that brings mentors together with protégés, we get off on the wrong foot. Even with the use of sophisticated computer algorithms, the ability to match people up perfectly has a dismal record of success. Here are some reasons why:

1. Chemistry Missing

Great mentoring relationships grow organically. One person admires another, usually more senior, person and they become friends. They usually do not even use the word “mentor.” It is the quality of the relationship that adds value in both directions that keeps the momentum going.

When the match is cooked up by some outside process other than genuine admiration and chemistry, the taproot of stability rarely has a chance to grow.

2. Time Commitment Too Structured and Demanding

If a mechanical process is used, there are often periodic meetings with some form of documentation of what was discussed. In the frenetic pace of business and the chaos in which most executives live, the ability to carve out a specific hour on every Tuesday is unrealistic.

The intention may be there, and the meetings may actually happen for a few weeks, but unless the relationship is extremely valuable, the meeting schedule will start to slip out, and a few months down the road it becomes a rare exception that the “normal” meeting occurs.

Contrast that with a more informal mentoring relationship that has no fixed schedule. The two people meet only when there is a reason and then it is a drop in or call in situation rather than a scheduled commitment.

3. Value Mostly One Way

To endure, the value gained from the relationship needs to be bilateral. The protégé gains specific knowledge and seasoning that is shared, but the mentor also gains from the ability to see the organization from a different vantage point.

Being able to experience what is going on through the eyes of another (often younger) person is a huge advantage for busy executives. Managers often become insulated from the actual environment as perceived by the numerous people in the organization.

4. Lack of Trust

All mentor relationships are based on trust. Each individual needs to be sure the information passed back and forth will only go outside the confides of the two individuals if permission is given by the other person. If a violation of the trust is verified or even just suspected, the mentor relationship is in serious jeopardy.

This challenge is particularly acute for the mentor, because information may become known independent of the mentor, yet the protégé may suspect it was leaked.

For the mentor, it is important to be keenly alert to changes in body language that might reveal a weakening of the relationship that was not caused by that person.

A Better Way

To gain the most from mentoring, make the concept ubiquitous in the culture. Do not seek to pair certain people up, rather let them select each other via natural processes.

Avoid having a documented “Mentoring Program,” but foster an environment that encourages people to pair up as they wish. Let them choose how often and under what circumstances to meet. Let them select the best methods of communication, so the system is not a burden on either party.

For example, I had a great relationship with a boss for over two decades. He liked to communicate mostly using voice mail, so the majority of our discussions were in that mode rather than in scheduled meetings. The asynchronous nature of the communication allowed us to be unfettered, yet very closely connected. He could deal with hundreds of other managers across the organization, yet I was always available.

I recall this person sending a voice mail at about 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. His comment was, “I always like interfacing with you, Bob, because whenever I pick up the phone, you are always right there.” He and I never used the word “mentor” to describe the relationship; that really helped make it successful.

For the protégé, the challenge is to be accessible in the right way at the right frequency, yet avoid being a pest. It is a fine line, and body language is the most sensitive way to pick up signals that you are coming on too strong.

A mentor would likely never say, “You are taking up too much of my time,” but an astute observer would be able to detect the input through dozens of body language signals.

Make sure you have at least one mentor in your life, and also make sure to guide some other people on their journey. These relationships add significantly to the quality of one’s life and work.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Cosme was a Nocturnal Person

July 26, 2010

Central story – shared with my online Transformational Leadership Graduate Level Class at 3 am the morning after a program on “Telling Stories” by Kelly Swanson at the National Speakers Association Convention in Orlando Florida on July 17, 2010.

Cosme was a nocturnal person. Nobody ever saw him in the light of day. This little old wrinkle-faced man with only three teeth was always dressed the same. He wore white pants and sandals. He always had one of those large white Mexican hats and a Serape that looked like it had been through many long nights keeping him warm under the frigid Mexican Sky.

Cosme and my friend Bob Rule

Cosme was the “security guard” at our apartment complex in Guadalajara, when my bride and I were stationed there for Kodak in the late 70’s. The complex was always locked at night as a precaution, so we had to honk the car horn to get in after a night on the town. He sat in a lounge chair by the pool all night long waiting to hear a horn outside the gate. He would jump up and run to the gate to open it for apartment dwellers.

We always tipped Cosme two pesos when we drove in – a practice the hotel manager frowned on because he was thinking we were spoiling the man with such a huge tip. The manager wanted us to give only one peso – which at that time was the equivalent of a nickel. Any time, on any night, raining or not, you could see Cosme sitting out by the pool half hidden under his Serape to keep him warm. When we tipped him, Cosme always muttered some words we could not understand due to his bad teeth. It sounded like Hey mios do venata – muchas gracias. We finally figured out that he was saying “Que Dios lo bendiga – muchias gracias” which means, God Bless You – Thank You in Spanish.

Many times, a buddy from Kodak and I would be out with our wives and come home late at night. At the gate, we would tip Cosme as usual, and our wives would retire for the evening. We had a habit of getting a few beers and cigars and going out by the pool to keep Cosme company. He was always glad to have a beer and smoke and someone to “talk” to. It was very hard to understand the man, but perhaps through many nights and too many beers we finally found the ability to communicate with him. It turns out Cosme had an interesting life.

He had spent his entire life sleeping during the day and working outside for others all night as some kind of watchman. As a boy he would tend goats in the hills, and later he cleaned a fresh-air cafe after the bar closed for the night. Finally, he got the job at Suites Slila as a night watchman. When we were there he was in his 70’s and not in the best of health. But health is in the mind more than the body, and there was nothing wrong with Cosme’s mind.

He would go on for hours about UFOs which he had seen over the years. He firmly believed in these flying visions and knew they were real. Not many people on earth have spent so much time staring at the night sky, so we figured he knew more than us on the subject. He was simply delighted to tell us these stories because everyone else in his life all through the years had kind of looked past the man. Nobody paid any attention to him. He was there, working, but people left him alone unless they needed something.

Cosme was about as poor as you can imagine. I think he only had the clothes on his back and lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor the next block over. One day I saw him in front of his “house” in the morning sweeping the dirt before he retired for the day. He would eat scraps of food left by people from various restaurants and some other simple things he could get for free.

Once our belongings were packed and shipped off to Rochester for our long awaited return trip, we had little left to do at Suites Slila but hand in the keys at the Manager’s Office and put our travel bags in the Taxi for the airport. It was about 10 am, and people were going about their normal day. Just before stepping into the taxi I heard a familiar voice Un – momentito. It was Cosme shuffling up the path with a plastic bag in his hand. I hardly recognized him in the light of day. He shook my hand and looked deeply into my eyes: his had a tear. He said in broken, but understandable English, “Thank you my friend” and handed me the bag with a slight bow. In the bag were two bottles of Tequila, and it was a very good, expensive brand. That must have cost him over two month’s pay. I still have part of the second bottle left after 33 years, and of course I will never finish it because my memory of Cosme can never end.

The point is that we touch the lives of people every day, and we have little idea the impact we are having on people. Don’t look past the people who serve you – they are individuals with high value, and each one has a story to tell.

You cannot fully know the impact you will have on other people!