The subtle power of mentorship

April 8th, 2019 @


When I was the newly hired president of Burger King USA, I worked for the late and legendary restaurateur, Norman Brinker. I was in Norman’s office one afternoon after he had seen a memo that I had written to one of our senior leaders. I was noticeably thorough and prescriptive in terms of laying out the course of action, to which Norman offered an alternate approach.

“I saw your memo to so-and-so and have a thought for you,” he said. “Next time, why don’t you just focus on the objective and leave how he gets there up to him?”

He continued, “Two things will happen: one, you’ll find out how smart he is or ain’t, and two, he might just come up with some new ideas you hadn’t thought of.”

That moment 36 years ago has shaped the way I’ve operated ever since, particularly when it comes to mentoring. While many mislabel mentorship as giving advice, there’s much more to it.

Rethinking the role of the mentor

The principle Norman Brinker instilled in the story above—both as a mentor to me and in my mentorship to others—is that it’s not so much about giving direction. A mentee still thinks and acts on their own, just with the advantage of having a mentor’s wisdom from which to draw. Mentoring means listening, observing, asking and sharing—not guiding or supervising.

Confidence through critical thinking

Let’s say you’re faced with a difficult choice; a mentor, in this situation, will serve as a sounding board. Oftentimes, we don’t know what we think until we hear what we say. You might go into the conversation asking for your mentor’s advice, but once they’ve shared their opinion, you’ll likely carry the discussion the rest of the way. By thinking aloud, you are building confidence in your own decision.

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Structured mentorship

Mentorship is one of the most underutilized means of passing knowledge between levels and generations of management within an organization. When I talk about structured mentorship, I’m likening it to matchmaking—which is something we do in our Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) and Meeting and Event Management Master’s Programs at San Diego State University. Every student is matched with a mentor based on what they’re trying to accomplish in their personal and professional growth; in many cases, mentors are HTM master’s alumni.

Creating structured mentorship in a corporate setting will naturally involve guidelines and protocol that can at times make the initiative itself feel rigid. But when you match the right people, they usually don’t need much to work with and will figure it out for themselves—yet another nod to the story I told to start this article—with minimal structure required.

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Layers of valuable input

A few years ago, I was mentoring a senior executive who wanted to earn consideration for becoming the successor to the soon-to-retire CEO. True to everything I’ve shared thus far, I gave him a template (rather than a roadmap) for developing his own plan of how he was going to get where he wanted to go. When the document reached a point that we both believed it was well-defined and ready to present, he took it to the CEO.

“I can help you do this,” the CEO said, essentially becoming another mentor in the executive’s journey.

I share this as an example of how mentorship can build from one person to the next—especially in the corporate world, where it has the ability to replace authority with collaboration. “Learning from” and “working alongside” are much more fruitful for everyone than “reporting to.” Mentees in our master’s programs often find the experience so intellectually stimulating that they seek to pay it forward and become mentors to subsequent cohorts.

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A two-way street

The most rewarding aspect of mentorship boils down to building meaningful relationships and learning from one another. I can tell you from my experiences that I have gained just as much insight and introspect from any and every one of my mentees as they have gained from me—and I know my own mentors connect with the same outlook. Everyone has both wisdom to gain and wisdom to share.

San Diego State University partnered with MPI to create the first-ever meeting and event management master’s degree program. Learn more and start the application process now!

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