Mentoring

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Maybe you call it networking over drinks after work or even an informal lunch every so often with someone in your profession who's well connected. Whatever it's called today, a mentoring spirit is alive and well among Rotarians, and it extends well past the environs of club meetings. It may go by different names or take different forms, and each pairing of people is unique, but at the core of each relationship is a mentor who wants to give back by helping someone navigate tricky waters.

Why take on the extra work? Rotarians say they do it not only because they enjoy it, but because they were guided early in their own careers, and they want to help others succeed. But as times have changed - and the workplace has most definitely changed - so has mentoring. Here's what mentoring is not: It isn't networking, although there is a networking aspect to it. And it's not telling someone what to do, although the phrase "if I were you" is bound to come up in the conversation.

Successful mentoring is a two-way street where both the mentor and mentee benefit.

"We've come to realize that the old view of mentoring was almost the Godfather approach to mentoring," says Belle Rose Ragins, an expert on mentoring and professor of human resource management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Marlon Brando would bestow his graces on a younger protégé. It's really much more of a relationship . and no two relationships are the same. Some mentoring relationships are lifelong and are these intense developmental relationships, and other mentoring relationships are just focused on work."

Regardless of how they're classified, career mentoring is on an upswing. Increasingly, Fortune 500 companies are initiating formal programs to help stem the brain drain that occurs as more seasoned baby boomers exit the workforce. More-structured programs, employers reason, allow new employees to assimilate into organizations more rapidly, rather than waiting for relationships between colleagues to develop naturally.

Savvy young professionals frequently ask about making those connections too, but their goal is to tap in to the talent base in order to develop their own professional style. "Young people in organizations are looking for that. They aren't looking for someone to make them a robot," says Jim Perrone of Perrone-Ambrose Associates Inc., a Chicago-based mentoring and coaching firm.

Experts also are seeing people participate in multiple mentoring relationships throughout their careers, each bringing a different set of abilities and wisdom. In the bustle of a global economy, it isn't always a formal program where there's a face-to-face sit-down once a month and a well-crafted agenda and list of goals. Phone calls are common, and computer technology and e-mail have enabled mentoring to go virtual.

One such example is a virtual mentoring program being planned by the Rotary E-Club of Latinoamérica. Interested Rotarians will apply to be mentors, and the program's coordinators will link them with Rotaractors seeking career guidance. The two people involved in each relationship decide how often to meet virtually and what the parameters of the relationship should be, while other Rotarians monitor the program and the relationships that form.

In other instances, Rotarians are taking the mentoring spirit to heart by leading programs in their work places.

Twenty years ago, as a young employee of Edward Jones in Eau Claire, Wis., Bill Hilgedick joined the local Rotary club and found its members very helpful as he worked to succeed in a new job in a new town.

As his professional success grew, he began helping less-experienced Edward Jones employees, and when the company began a formal mentoring program, Hilgedick was among those asked to help kick it off. He didn't hesitate, and he likens the impression he makes as a mentor within his company to the way The Rotary Foundation makes an impact within a community.

"There are very few [times] in your life when you have a chance to make an impact," Hilgedick explains. "[Mentoring] is part teaching, part business development help, and sometimes it's just being someone you can talk to. . That is definitely one avenue of living the role of Rotarian."

Herb Wilson likens mentoring to teaching. The 80-year-old retiree, an engineer by training who became a seasoned businessman and entrepreneur, believed early on that it was his responsibility to help business people who are just starting out to achieve their potential. It was a responsibility he took seriously, so much so that he attributes his own professional success to the employees he mentored at firms in the United States and Canada.

"I've had a lot of people call me over the years and say let's do breakfast," says Wilson, a 45-year Rotarian who is now a member of the Rotary Club of  Iowa City, Iowa, USA. "I've never turned down an invitation to lunch. Without ever hanging out a shingle, I've had so many calls I can't tell you. The main thing I ask people is what are they truly passionate about."

Ask Wilson what he gets out of it, and he's quick to answer. "A thrill," he responds. "There's nothing like seeing someone who doesn't see the problem on approach, and you can turn the light on for them. Give them a focus or a thought they didn't have before, and when they come back, it's wonderful."

One of the many people Wilson has counseled over the years is David Hamod, who, in 1980 at the age of 22, rented a room in Wilson's house after returning from Cairo on a Rotary fellowship. Hamod went on to work for IBM, the New York Times, and the federal government, and he ran his own consulting firm. Today, Hamod is president of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce and involved in the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C. He also is still in regular contact with Wilson, who gave him sage advice over the years.

"At the time it never occurred to me that I was a mentee, but in retrospect, by becoming part of the Wilson family, it helped me to even better establish a moral, professional, and ethical compass," Hamod says. "People emphasize leadership by example, and Herb is a good example. His motto is Never Say Never, and that spirit of charging forward certainly applied to me."

Hamod finds himself now playing the role of mentor with interns who pass through his office, trying to help them on their own professional journeys.

"If you value the spirit of community and making the world a better place, which we as Rotarians do, then there's great rewards in helping prepare the next generation," he says. "Chambers of commerce, like Rotary, are service organizations. We're here to serve. It's in my blood."

Connie Ragen Green, a member of the Rotary Club of Santa Clarita Valley, Calif., USA, credits her early interest in helping others to the assistance she and her mother received when she was a young girl and the family fell on hard times. Later, a retired teacher mentored her early career development, as Green became a teacher herself.

Two years ago, as she was approaching age 50, Green, a three-time cancer survivor, decided it was time to give back for all the assistance she'd received over the years. She left teaching after almost 20 years, moved to Santa Clarita, used her technical know-how to start writing e-books, and joined the Rotary club because of the volunteer opportunities it offered around the world.        

To her surprise, two other members of the club, who are her contemporaries, have come to consider her their mentor. She has helped guide them by advising them on how to use the Internet to grow their businesses. Neither Greg Nutter, an insurance agent, nor David Goldberg, a dentist, would have gotten to know Green had it not been for Rotary. The camaraderie and trust developed while doing things like working at pancake breakfasts led to long-term, informal mentoring between Green and these men.

"It has changed my perspective," Green said. "I always felt that if someone had a business for 20 years, they would never need someone like me. The fact that they do need me and appreciate me and let me share in [their] success is important to me."

Nutter, for instance, stays in touch with Green most days and runs big work-related decisions past her. "A mentor tells you the good with the bad, they never mislead you," Nutter said. "She became a mentor without me knowing I needed a mentor. You've been in your office 10 years, you think you know it all."

The people skills developed and the connections made through Rotary can be good first steps in finding an appropriate mentor. To get the most out of a mentoring relationship, the mentor and mentee have to have mutual respect and trust, personalities that would normally gravitate toward one another, and an open mind, experts say.

It all starts with that initial conversation.

"Test the waters first," said Nancy Mitchell, owner of the Etiquette Advocate, a Washington, D.C.-based business. "Try to get to know that person, ask a little career advice, and see how open they are to sharing. If they are a very open person, maybe make an appointment with them and say, 'I'd like to talk a little bit more. I'd like to ask you some questions.' And then the next step would be saying, 'This has gone so well, would you ever consider acting as a mentor?'"

The answer shouldn't be a surprise to Rotarians, according to Herb Wilson. "Most people, if they care about the world, which is the majority of Rotarians, any time you can help a person, you should do that," he said.