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Mentors and Mentees: LIFE-CHANGING Relationships

28/06/2009 12:12

To say that mentoring is the new buzzword in business relationships would be inaccurate, as the concept has literally been with us for millennia. However, an increasing number of successful men and women - from politicians such as American president Barak Obama to businessmen such as British multi-billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, ascribe much of their success to the influence of their mentors. Manie Bosman recently interviewed two South African mentor-mentee partnerships for SLI to learn more about mentorship and what it takes to make these relationships work.

They don’t look alike - in fact, they seem to be complete opposites in nearly every visible aspect. The one is over six feet tall, carries a few extra kilograms around the middle, wears his blond hair in a military cut and he’s white. The other is much younger, at least a foot shorter, slightly build with a shaved scalp and he’s black.

However, as is often the case, appearances can be deceiving as Tiaan Liebenberg (57), born and bred in a traditional Afrikaner home on a farm outside Bethlehem in the Orange Free State, and Ashwin Maunda (29), a Malawian who grew up in a small village on the shores of Lake Malawi, share a very strong bond. Since Ashwin came to South Africa four years ago to join Open Hearts, a Johannesburg-based Christian non-profit organization, Tiaan has been his mentor, advisor and close friend. In spite of all the apparent differences between them, both are quick to admit that their mentor-mentee relationship has impacted and enriched their lives on many different levels.

Although less different in appearance, Johan van den Berg (54) and Brendon Coetzee (36) are also in a similar relationship. Johan, a cheerful character with a thick moustache that is showing signs of grey, is the owner of a construction consulting firm in Pretoria. Brendon, quiet-spoken and more serious in manner, is a partner in a utility management company with branches across South Africa. Although they seldom, if ever, cross paths in their working environment, Johan has been Brendon’s mentor for more than ten years. They met each other through a mutual friend who recommended that Brendon ask Johan for business advice when he and his brother started their company in 1998. One meeting led to another and gradually developed into an informal mentor-mentee relationship.

Mentoring from the Horse’s Mouth

The Oxford Dictionary defines a “mentor” as a “wise and trusted adviser and helper of an inexperienced person”.[i] To get beyond this somewhat clinical definition, SLI managed to get the two mentoring “couples” together over a cup of coffee at the Blue Crane coffee shop in Pretoria. We then bombarded them with questions to learn what is so enticing about mentoring relationships and how the world can be a better place as a result of such relationships.

SLILet’s start right at the beginning. When you first met each other, did you know you were entering into a mentor-mentee relationship, and what were your impressions and expectations of one another?

Tiaan: When Ashwin joined Open Hearts, I knew I was going to have to show him the ropes. I also knew that he was a very able young man, so I expected him to learn fast and gradually take responsibility for various aspects of the work.

Ashwin (laughs behind his hand): I must admit, I never worked with white people before I came to South Africa. In Chichewa a white man is called a Mzungu. So here I was, fresh from Malawi, and they tell me I’m going to work with this big Mzungu. I was really unsure of what to expect.

Johan: At our very first meeting, I could see that Brendon is eager to learn. I’ve always been interested in the mentorship-thing, so right then the thought of mentoring him came up.

Bernard: I knew before that Johan was a successful businessman, so when he offered to meet me regularly, I was really surprised and excited. I could see that he had a lot of experience from which I could learn.

SLIHow did your relationship grow into a mentor-mentee relationship?

Thys: It developed naturally. I was impressed with Ashwin’s willingness to go “the extra mile” and so I started spending more time with him. We started discussing matters not just related to work, and eventually that became the backbone of our relationship.

Johan: Ours was a similar process. At first I only advised Brendon on matters related to getting their new business started. Then we got to know each other and started to share personal experiences and views. We’re both Christians, so our faith became another common ground in our relationship.

SLIHow often do you spend time together?

Thys: We work together so we basically see each other at work every day. However, we normally set aside an hour or so each week during which we just sit and talk over a cup of coffee.

Ashwin: I drink tea, he is still struggling to accept that (more laughter). 

Johan: We spend much less time together now than we did in the first few years. However, we speak on the phone at least once every two weeks, and we also keep contact through e-mail.

SLIIf you have to be a little philosophical, what would you say are the characteristics of a good mentor?

Tiaan: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that, but I would say first of all a mentor need to be able and willing to invest some time and energy into someone else’s life without necessarily expecting something in return. You have to be able to listen and you have to respect your mentee’s opinions, even if they’re younger and less experienced.

Ashwin: Thys has taught me so much. Apart from everything I’ve learned from him, I always appreciate his patience and the fact that he never forces me to do what he thinks is right. He advises, but never imposes. And he knows a lot about nearly everything. It helps when your mentor really has a wide general knowledge.

Johan: A mentor also has to be humble and able to learn. It was easy for me to share knowledge on technical or business-related issues with Brendon. However, I had to learn that sometimes he just needed me to listen or offer moral support, and not provide the solution per se. 

Brendon: Johan is a great listener. He is also totally honest - if he doesn’t agree with me or think I’m wrong, he will tell me. I can share anything with him and be a hundred per cent sure that it will only remain between us. He also sees the good in people, not just in me, and knows how to motivate me in a way that brings out the best in me.

SLICan you think of an example where he motivated you in such a way?

Brendon: There was the time when we had a verbal agreement and were just about to sign the formal contract for a great deal with a large shopping center in Bloemfontein. Then another company stole the deal by making promises we new they could never keep. I was fuming and ready to go to war, even if it would cost time and money in court. However, after a long talk with Johan, I let it go and even sent the CEO of the center an email to say that we release them of the obligations of our verbal agreement. A few months later they contacted us again, and today they’re still one of our best clients.

SLIIt seems that the mentor-mentee relationship is similar to a father-son relationship, apart from the fact that you don’t have to provide pocket money?

Johan: I have two sons, and although there are some similarities, but our relationship is different from my relationship with Brendon. I think the mentoring relationship is less complicated - sons and fathers often have an element of competition, or perhaps it’s that thing where the son has to prove his independence. In mentoring, it’s a more relaxed relationship.

Tiaan: I would say it’s more like an older brother, younger brother relationship. But you don’t get to bully your mentee. (Laughter all around)

DMWould you say that mentoring is similar to teaching? What are the differences?

Tiaan: A mentor is a teacher, but also a life coach, friend, and supporter. And even more than in the case of a teacher, you have to actually be what you teach!

Johan: There’s definitely a strong teaching element. However, it goes beyond just sharing information. You have to actually care for the person and guide him through the process of applying the information you have shared. It gets very personal at times.

SLIIf we can turn a previous question around, what makes a good mentee or protégé?

Tiaan: I can only speak from what I see in Ashwin. He really appreciates what I try to pass on to him, and he shows it. In other words, he makes me aware of the fact that I’m not sowing onto rocks, so to speak. He doesn’t take anything for granted and he works hard to apply what he learns. That blesses me.

Ashwin: I think a mentee is as good or as bad as his mentor makes him.

Johan: I agree with Tiaan. There’s commitment from both sides. The mentor shows the way and support, but the mentee must want it. You can’t force mentoring onto someone, and if the person doesn’t want it, you’ll probably give up before too long. If I really think about it, I think a good mentee is also someone who will continue the process - pass onto others what he has learned. I know that Brendon has been doing that with some of his younger employees.

DMDonald Perkins, CEO of the Jewel Group in the USA, once stated that everyone who succeeds has had a mentor or mentors.[ii] Do you think mentoring is a ‘make-or-brake’ factor to determine individual success?

Tiaan: Hmm, it depends how you define success. I think someone can make a lot of money or win a war or perform open heart surgery without ever having had a mentor. But I think to really develop as a ‘whole person’ would be near impossible without the guidance and support of someone else who has been on the road a little longer than you.

Justin: I think that most people have mentors - individuals who helps us develop and grow in some way or another - even if its not a formal or structured mentoring relationship. So in that sense I agree that no-one can really reach their full potential without some sort of mentoring input in their lives.

SLIA lot has been written about the fact that mentoring benefits us. It is said to increase job satisfaction and develop leadership skills while also building confidence. In which way have you as mentee been benefitted by this relationship?

Ashwin: You should ask people who knew me four years ago. Apart from everything I’ve learned from Tiaan in the office, he has inspired me to become the person that God created me to be. He helped me to see past my own restrictions and not allow my own or other people’s opinions dictate what I can or cannot do or be.

Brendon: I don’t want to over-exaggerate, but I’ve often said that Johan taught me almost everything important I know in business. I’m not saying I’ve ‘arrived’, but he has shaped the way I view my role as a leader, my relationship with co-workers and clients, and even the way I tackle challenges or important decisions. If I didn’t know Johan, I might have turned into a typical ‘boss’ at work. He taught me the value of investing personal time and energy into individuals.

SLIAnd for you as mentor, are there any real benefits apart from feeling good about the progress you are seeing in your mentee?

Johan: Definitely. Remember, this is a relationship, and in any relationship both parties are constantly influencing each other. For instance, at times I’ve had to really take a critical look at some of my assumptions and convictions. You have to make sure that what you share, is really truth, or as close as you can get to it. That process brings about personal growth and learning for the mentor too.

Tiaan: Yes, another advantage is that our relationship motivated me to really ‘walk the talk’. From the beginning, I was aware that Ashwin looked up to me, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. So this was an added motivation for me to actually model what I taught and said to Ashwin.

DMDo you ever disagree, and if so, who wins the fight?

Tiaan: Of course. Something that I found difficult in the beginning, was the fact that Malawians are very meek and humble people. It’s a cultural thing. On the other hand, Afrikaners in general seem to be inclined to argue our point of view in a much stronger way. So it took some time to convince Ashwin not to always stand back and accept what I say. I think both of us have come a long way in that.

Brendon: There had been times when we didn’t agree on something, but it never really caused tension or turned into a fight.

SLII read an article in which a good mentee is described as someone who stands on the shoulders of giants, without being tempted to relieve himself on their heads.[iii] Do you as mentor ever feel threatened by the fact that your mentee could develop to the point where he becomes a threat to your own position?

Tiaan: No never. I want Ashwin to go all the way. Maybe I can retire to a little cottage on the beach while he runs the show!

Johan: It doesn’t apply in our case as we are not in the same industry and we do not work together. However, I believe Brendon has the ability to develop further than I had as a leader, and that just makes me really excited. It would be like seeing my investment grow!

SLISomeone once said that a good mentor is like a tattoo - its stays with you forever.[iv]However, most experts on mentorship suggest that there should be a time limit to the mentor-mentee relationship.[v] Do you agree and have you planned for this?

Johan: Our relationship has certainly changed over the years. We now spend much less time together than a few years ago, and Brendon would only ask my occasionally opinion, mostly to confirm what he already knows. We didn’t plan it that way, I think it’s just a natural outcome of a growth process.

Brendon: It’s still comforting to know that even now, I can always turn to Johan for advice.

Tiaan: Although we’ve been in this process for a much shorter period of time, I can see that our relationship is also changing. We don’t specifically plan for it, and we might still be working together for the next ten years, but I do think that at some point Aubrey will need less input from me.

Ashwin: That’s true, I think we’re going to switch roles. I’ve said to Tiaan he can come and stay in Malawi so that I can teach him. He taught me to be a fisher of men, I will teach him to be a fisherman. (Ashwin nearly falls of his chair laughing while Tiaan smiles and shakes his head).

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

Mentoring relationships are certainly nothing new. The word “mentor” dates back to Greek mythology and specifically to the work of the ancient Greek poet Homer, who lived somewhere between 1184-850BC. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus asked his wise old friend Mentor, to see to the education and development of his son, Telemachus, while he went off to war.[vi] In centuries to follow, wise men and women who have advised, taught, tutored and coached younger men and women in fields as diverse as the arts, military, literature, philosophy, religion, commerce and sport, had become known as “mentors”.[vii]

Until the 1970’s, the importance and existence of mentors had been largely unheralded in the business world. However, their impact was clear - a survey among top US executives of the time revealed that two-thirds of the respondents had a mentor, that the number of mentoring relationships was growing and that executives who had mentors earned more money at a younger age and were “happier with their career progress”.[viii]


Go Thee and Mentor or be Mentored

Today, even a quick scan of literature and internet websites prove that mentors and mentoring are very much at the center of individual and leadership development. Many organizations have adopted formal mentor-mentee programs while mentoring is also taught as a subject in many schools and universities. However, many mentors and mentees are also impacting each other’s lives through informal mentoring relationships where wisdom, skills and knowledge is carried over from one generation to the next.

From our interview with the two mentor-mentee dyads it is clear that mentoring relationships can be an effective and fulfilling experience for both parties. It involves teaching, support, a little coaching, motivation, sharing of wisdom, friendship and mutual commitment. For the mentee it often results in better social adaptation, increased job satisfaction, improved self-assuredness, and overall personal growth. For the mentor it brings fulfillment and increased motivation to live with integrity and honesty. However, mentoring can be more - in a fast changing, faceless, highly competitive and technology-driven world, it can be the anchor of caring and humanity.  

So, if you haven’t got a mentor yet, it about is time to humble yourself, put your cockiness aside, and ask the wise old man (or woman) in the large office down the corridor if he (or she) is ready and willing to enter into a relationship with you. On the other hand, if you think you are that wise old man, you may be over-estimating your own wisdom if you haven’t started to impart some of it into the lives of a generation of younger people waiting to be enlightened by your acumen.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Hornby, A. S. (1984). Oxford Advanced Leaner’s Dictionary of Current English. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Collins, E. G. C., and Scott, P. (1978). Everyone who makes it has a mentor. Harvard Business Review, 56 (4), 89-101

[iii] Morse, J. M. (2006). Deconstructing the mantra of mentorship: In conversation with Phyllis Noerager Stern. Health Care for Women International27, 548–558

[iv] Vesilind, P. A. (1999). Mentoring: Turning Pebbles into Diamonds. Research Integrity, 3, (2).

[v] Peddy, S. (2001). The Art of Mentoring. (2nd Ed). Houston, TX: Bullion Books.

[vi] Homer. (1954). The Odyssey. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books.

[vii] Roche, G. R. (1979). Much ado about mentors. Harvard Business Review, 57 (1), 14-28

[viii] Roche, G. R. (1979). Much ado about mentors. Harvard Business Review,57 (1), 14-28 

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