Monday, April 21, 2014

Let's Not Lose Mentorship: What the Entrepreneurial Spirit Might Be Missing

Is there enough mentorship in business?

I worry that there isn't. In the course of my career, I've had very few professional relationships that I would put in the mentorship category. Very early in my publishing career, my boss was a woman who taught me all her principles of organization, which largely ground the theories and principles I wrote about in my book Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life, but in many ways, that teaching was unexpected. I'm pretty sure she saw it as procedural training, more along the lines of "this is how we do things" than "I'm giving you skills that you will grow and which will become the focal point of your future work."

The entrepreneurial spirit I see particularly in the technology sector values sandbox play. People believe they will be praised for experimentation and iteration. There's a shared cultural sense that trying something new by creating original apps, gadgets, services, and "solutions" (I hate that word used in that context) has inherent value.

But I also see entrepreneurs making tremendous mistakes by not paying attention to what came before, and I wonder if more mentorship would help.

Here's an example: An app developer designs and builds a wonderful productivity tool, but the interface doesn't conform to standards that have already been set by other very similar apps. That's a case where originality isn't the best route. The developer would have saved himself or herself so much time and effort by mirroring the best practices in interaction design rather than trying to create them from scratch, or riffing off them rather than just following suit. A good mentor would have advised, "Just steal the best of what already exists for this part. Don't waste your time trying to reinvent it. The problem has already been solved elegantly, and deviating from that elegance looks sloppy and rash--not inspirational." Perhaps giving advice at that deep level of detail sounds more like the work of a consultant or beta test group than a mentor, but maybe not.

I know of some acquaintances who have very formal mentorships. They meet with their mentors a few times a year, usually over lunch, to discuss the course of their career in broad strokes. Some companies have formal mentorship programs, although I've only ever heard about them. I've never worked for an organization that actually does it.

How do we foster more mentorship in a society that almost irrationally lauds anyone who has succeeded without help and by trying something radical and new? Those cases are extremely exceptional, and I don't think we should look to them as anything but that.

Do you have a mentor? How does the relationship work? Is it a formal or informal mentorship, and what have you learned, or how have you been guided?

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