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Spring 2013

October Current Thinking Column

Monday, October 30, 2017

Knowledge Transfer: Mentoring in Family Business

by Donnel Nunes
Associate, Aspen Family Business Group

Over the past year, I’ve had numerous conversations with family business owners and advisors about their efforts, and associated challenges, to transferring knowledge between generations. Most recently this included a discussion session during the Aspen Family Business Group workshop, Building and Sustaining Legacy of Oíkos, in Thessaloniki, Greece. In many of these conversations, family owners and advisors spoke directly about their efforts to institute mentoring programs to address needs for talent development, succession planning, and learning between generations. As the birthplace of the word mentor, I found Greece to be a particularly evocative location to dive into the topic of these learning relationships.

While there certainly are people who have a natural proclivity for being a highly effective mentor, more often, they are the ‘exception’ rather than the ‘rule.’ In most cases, effective mentoring relationships and programs require thoughtful planning and execution. This starts with building a shared understanding of mentoring followed by the development and implementation of a program that follows established best-practices. This said, in most cases, I found that advisors and family owners often relied on informal approaches to mentoring and were frustrated that they were not getting the results they had hoped for. In the world of mentoring, these factors commonly go hand-in-hand.

In this month’s Current Thinking Column, I want to start what I hope to be an ongoing series about knowledge management in family business. In this edition, my intention is to help readers deepen their understanding of mentoring as a concept and tool that can be very useful in family owned businesses. As a starting point, I will provide you with a brief overview of the history of mentoring followed by discussion about building a shared understanding of mentoring and the difference between a supportive family member and a mentor.

History of Mentoring

“Know from whence you came. If you know when you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.“   - James Baldwin

While there is evidence across time and cultures that suggest mentoring practices have existing for millennia and may even be part of human DNA (Dubois and Karcher, 2014), it is generally accepted that the first literary reference to the word mentor was in the 8th century B.C in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. In this tale, ‘Mentor’ is introduced to the reader as a close-confidant of Odysseus who was placed in charge of his ‘oíkos’ (household) while the king was fighting in Troy. As the keeper of the oíkos, Mentor was charged not only with the care of the physical estate, but also with the care of all who lived there. This included being responsible for the development and education of the king’s son, Telemachus.

KEY POINTS

1. Mentoring relationships and programs require a shared vision, thoughtful planning, and monitored execution.

2. Building a shared vision for your mentoring program starts with building a shared understanding of mentoring.

3. Mentoring is generally defined as a one-way, learning relationship where a, typically older, more-experienced person provides knowledge and wisdom to a, typically younger, less-experienced person to advance their career

4. Current thinking about mentoring includes a move away from simply looking at dyadic relationships to include ecological and network models.

5. Development and implementation of a program should include consideration of established best-practices.

6. Family business owners need to evaluate the family business experience of mentoring program advisors and/or the mentoring experience of family business advisors when looking for support in this area.

7. The best mentoring relationships are reciprocal, focused on solutions, mindful of integrating professional and outside networks, and cognizant of how they help to improve the quality of thinking for both mentor and protégé.

In the opening of the story, we find the estate of Odysseus over-run by suitors who are plundering the stores of food and wine, unwelcomely courting his wife, and treating his son with contempt. By all reasonable measures, Mentor was a miserable failure in executing his duties. In fact, it is only after the goddess, Athena (goddess of wisdom, council, and war), appears before Telemachus disguised as Mentor that his circumstances and fortunes begin to change. Through a merger of man and goddess, into what I refer to as the Symbolic Mentor (Nunes and Dashew, 2017), I believe Homer begins to reveal his own contemplations about the roles and functions of a mentor. Taken from a figurative perspective, we find Symbolic Mentor is both human and goddess, male and female, and divine and mortal. In the form of Mentor, she provides wise council, the procurement of supplies for his travel, and acts as a companion in arms. Athena arrives in a time of need, provides the call to adventure, and serves as the usher who guides Telemachus towards his destiny and reunification with his father. While Homer’s mentor may be an imperfect example, I believe there is still value in understanding the ancient heritage of this type of learning relationship.

Following the etymology of the word ‘mentor,’ it wasn’t until 1699, that it would reappear in literature. This time, Athena is once again in the form of the man Mentor in Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), a book written by Arch Bishop Francois Fénelon. At the time it was authored, Fénelon was serving as the tutor of the 7-year-old Duke of Burgundy who was both the grandson of Louis the XIV and 2nd in line for the throne. Reportedly, Fénelon wrote to educate the young leader about benevolent leadership and to speak out against the political culture of the time. In this story, Athena guides and educates Telemachus through a relationship that many historians believe to be the first conceptual representation of mentoring in literature.

In 1750, the word, ‘mentor’ made its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2017). The word, ‘mentor,’ was identified as a noun and defined as “a person who acts as guide or advisor to another person, esp. one who is younger and less experienced.” Later, in 1918, the Oxford English Dictionary published a revised definition of ‘mentor’ which expanded to also recognize “mentor” as a verb. Adding, “to act as a mentor” was “to advise or train someone, esp. a younger or less experienced colleague.”

Despite its ancient origin, formal study of the practice of mentoring did not begin until the latter-half of the 20th century. In 1978, Daniel Levinson and his team of researchers published The Seasons of a Man’s Life in which he reported his findings from a study examining adult development. In this seminal book, Levinson and colleagues pointed to the importance of mentors in adult development and described their role as someone who helps another with the “realization of the dream (p. 98).”

Shortly after Levinson, Kathy Kram published another seminal piece of research on mentoring in her book; Mentoring at Work (1985). In this writing, she reported findings from her research on mentoring. Kram’s book is widely considered as the first comprehensive examination of mentoring practices in research literature. In addition to information about programs and roles, she identified a set of functions, phases, and challenges associated with mentoring relationships.

In the time since Levinson and Kram, the number of studies and the frequency to which people incorporate mentoring into various contexts has exploded. At the time of this writing, there are literally millions of academic and journalistic articles on the subject. Mentoring programs can be found in private and public organizations, education, the military, public health, programs for disadvantaged youth, and countless other areas.

Surprisingly, while family business owners and expert advisors have known for decades the importance of family members acting as mentors to younger generations, very little research has been done to examine the unique effects of a mentor also being a family member. Not only is this an important fact for mentoring researchers to consider, but it also means family business owners need to evaluate the family business experience of mentoring advisors and/or the mentoring experience of family business advisors when looking for support in this area.

Building a Shared Understanding of Mentoring

“A problem well put is half solved.“   - John Dewey

In most family business endeavors, the starting point for success is building a shared vision to guide your family and business forward, the same thing can be said when it comes to developing and implementing a mentoring program. In the case of mentoring, the first step to developing a common vision is formulating a collective understanding of the concept.

When I give talks, or interact with families on the topic of mentoring, one of the first things I do is I ask members of the audience or clients to share their definition of mentoring. What usually follows are responses that demonstrate a fair amount of variance between the way that people understand mentoring. Sometimes, the difference between definitions is related to roles. At other times, definition vary as relates to the program structure needed for mentoring. For example, I’ve heard mentoring defined as ‘teaching others,’ ‘coaching’ a younger person, or simply ‘giving advice’ in a work environment. As pertains to programs, I’ve heard people say they have a mentoring program, only to find through further discussion that they have simply matched a younger employee, or family member, with an older one and called it ‘mentoring.’ In reality, mentoring is more than teaching, coaching, or giving advice. Additionally, it’s also more than the sum of its parts. Effective mentoring is defined by all these things and more.

A good place to start when trying to better understand mentoring is to look at what the experts have to say. In 1991, Maryann Jacobi, conducted a review of the existing mentoring research and found the majority of mentoring definitions shared a list of common themes. According to Jacobi, mentoring was generally defined as a one-way, learning relationship where a, typically older, more-experienced person provides knowledge and wisdom to a, typically younger, less-experienced person to advance their career. This said, contemporary definitions of mentoring have widely accepted that a younger person is capable of mentoring an older. A significant responsibility of the mentor is to provide the protégé with both instrumental and psychosocial support. Jacobi also found a common agreement about the phases of mentoring. Initially identified by Kathy Kram in 1985, they include initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition and are characterized by varying expectations, points of focus, and levels of dependency between the mentor and protégé. While Jacobi’s work has largely stood the test of time it is most accurate to say that it has provided a foundation from which more contemporary thinking has continued to build.

Over the past ten years, the evolution in thought around mentoring has included a move away from simply looking at dyadic relationships to include ecological and network models. In these cases, mentoring is defined in part by the way that it affects multiple systems and draws on a diverse network of supporters. The truth is, while there does exist a generally agreed upon scope of definitions amongst mentoring professionals and researchers, there is still some grey areas related to different contexts.

 

ACTION ITEMS

1. Establish a shared understanding of mentoring: Start asking other family members and key employees how they define mentoring? What is your shared understanding of mentoring? How does it align with what the experts are saying?

2. Identify your family “mentors”:
Ways to differentiate between being a caring relative and being a mentor:

a. Their efforts should be focused on helping the protégé to advance in their participatory status in the family business or another professional domain. In the world of social-science, we call these ‘communities of practice. 

b. It should be evident that a familial mentor is sharing domain expertise or is skillful as a mentor in a way that would qualify them to be a mentor to a non-family employee or person.

c. Efforts of the mentor should be aligned with the goals of the protégé over the needs or wants of the business. If the goals of the protégé do not align with the direction of the family business, the mentoring might not be for the purpose of bringing them into the business.

3. Develop a Vision: Start constructing a shared vision for your mentoring program.

4. Consider the Possibilities: I encourage you to consider, not only, how a mentoring relationship might benefit a younger family member, but how these same relationships can help senior members to learn from the upcoming generations.

When it comes to familial mentoring in family business, it is very common for mentors and their protégé to be related. When this is the case, there are a few things that are beneficial to consider when you are defining the roles of these mentors. First, a parent or other care-giver is not a mentor by virtue of these roles. In order to help would-be-familial-mentors differentiate their roles, I suggest using the following criteria:

  1. Their efforts should be focused on helping the protégé to advance in their participatory status in the family business or another professional domain. In the world of social-science, we call these ‘communities of practice.’

  2. It should be evident that a familial mentor is sharing domain expertise or is skillful as a mentor in a way that would qualify them to be a mentor to a non-family employee or person.

  3. Efforts of the mentor should be aligned with the goals of the protégé over the needs or wants of the business. If the goals of the protégé do not align with the direction of the family business, the mentoring might not be for the purpose of bringing them into the business.

In addition to these factors, you may also want to consider how a mentoring program might affect the other sub-systems within and outside of the business. Further, I encourage you to consider, not only, how a mentoring relationship might benefit a younger family member, but how these same relationships can help senior members to learn from the upcoming generations. In my research and work, I’ve found the best mentoring relationships to be reciprocal, focused on finding solutions, mindful of integrating professional and outside networks, and cognizant of how they help to improve the quality of thinking for both mentor and protégé.

The important take away from this section is to remember that, like your business, mentoring programs have the greatest chance for success when they include a shared vision. Building a shared vision for your mentoring program starts with building a shared understanding of mentoring.

What’s next?

Keep an eye out in future Current Thinking Columns for follow-ups on knowledge management. The next time I write, I will start to lead you through some of the key program standards to use when evaluating existing programs or to consider when planning new mentoring programs. After that, I’ll discuss ways you can make your professional and personal networks more efficient and effective by formally evaluating and structuring your developmental networks. From there we will explore some of the current thinking related to how to teach and how we learn through discussion of the latest in educational program frameworks and design.

In the meanwhile, start asking other family members and key employees how they define mentoring? Gather this information, merge it with some of the research findings I’ve shared, and start constructing a shared vision for your mentoring program.

 

References:

Dubois, D. L., and Karcher, M. J. (2014). Youth mentoring in contemporary perspective. In D. L. Dubois and M. J. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 3-13). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of educational research, 61(4), 505-532.

Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. University Press of America.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man's life. Random House LLC.

Mentor. (2017). In OED Online. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com.eres.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/search?searchType=dictionary&q=mentor&_searchBtn=Search

Nunes, J.D., and Dashew, L., (2017). Mentoring between generations: A family affair. In Clutterbuck, D., Dominguez, N., Kochan, F., Lunsford, L., Smith, B., & Haddock-Millar, J. (Eds). Sage Handbook of Mentoring. SAGE Publications

 


 

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