Mentorship in business is the tutelage, patronage, influence, guidance, or direction given by a person who is an expert in a business or who has succeeded in a business venture (mentor) to a beginner who wants to succeed in the same business (mentee). A mentor is a master or knowledgeable person who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person. In an organisational setting, a mentor influences the personal and professional growth of a mentee. Between a mentor and mentee, there exists a trusted bond, a meaningful commitment and a lasting relationship apart from business dealings. Mentoring is when someone shares their knowledge, skills, and experience with other persons to help them to progress and make sure that he or she supports the persons till they are able to stand on their own.
Mentorship is as old as business itself. For complex life to persist, some degree of teaching from generation to generation must take place. The German government takes serious interest in family businesses which survive on the principles of mentorship. Indeed, one can see the basic elements of mentorship at work in the natural world. Lions, monkeys, cheetahs, robins and mackerels (just to name a few) sometimes spend years teaching their young ones how to feed themselves in the wild, often employing multi-step processes to ingrain certain ways of thinking in the minds of their offsprings. We may not conceive of this dynamic as “mentoring” per se, but at a fundamental level, the effects of a teaching-based relationship are the same, whether for monkeys or for humans. Ideally, at the end of the process, the junior partner in that relationship would have been well-equipped to thrive in a particular ecosystem.
The term “mentor” as we understand it, however, originated in Homer’s famous epic, The Odyssey, according to Jacob Harvey of Pollinate Networks Inc. When Odysseus, the poem’s hero, leaves to fight the Trojan War, he places a friend of his, Mentor, in charge of his son, Telemachus. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, assumes the form of Mentor at various points in the story to offer him guidance and counsel in Telemachus’ father’s absence. Thus, the word mentor came to be associated with someone who can offer advice or impart skills to a protégé. Of course, connections involving the transmission of knowledge have existed for thousands of years outside the literary canon. In Hinduism, the dynamics between gurus and disciples, otherwise known as the guru-shishya tradition, broadly follows the course of a mentor-mentee relationship; the guru, acting as the mentor, shares key spiritual lessons with their disciples, influencing their personal spiritual growth.
Most blue chip organisations plan their leadership succession on mentoring principles. The young graduates are carefully selected and trained for several years to assume the leadership mantle in future as they progress in their career. There are also specific examples of relationships revolving around knowledge-sharing throughout history. In ancient Greece for example, the philosopher Socrates taught fellow philosopher Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle, three of the most important thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition. Mentoring can be identified in ancient Rome as well. Rather than having their own children automatically succeed them as heir, a series of Roman emperors between 96 and 180 CE instituted a practice known as “adoptive succession”, in which their preferred successor, generally unrelated, was adopted into the imperial family. This gave the chosen heir an opportunity to observe and learn from the emperor’s actions, knowledge that they could take into their own reign and in turn pass on to their own successor.
This contributed to a long stretch of continuity, and is widely credited with creating the conditions for the Roman Empire’s greatest period of flourishing. Later, in the Mediaeval era, the feudal economy, based on tightly restricted guilds in which masters taught apprentices the basics of their craft, was in many ways founded on the mentor-mentee dynamics. Celebrated artists in Renaissance Italy for example would recruit young apprentices who would spend years under the tutelage of their master, collaborating on projects and sharing artistic knowledge and skills.
Mentoring from early Modern Age to the Present
As the Enlightenment took hold in the 18th century (an intellectual phenomenon which sought to order the world according to secular principles like reason and rationality), mentoring began to receive more systematic attention. The Ibo people of eastern Nigeria have developed a system of business mentoring after the civil war of 1970. The Yoruba and Hausa business men and women also have their ways of mentoring apprentices. Lord Chesterfield, another prominent 18th century figure, was the first to use the word mentor in its modern context, citing “the friendly care and assistance of (his son’s) mentor” as an important ingredient in the formation of his son’s character. These examples revolve around familial relationships, so the understanding of mentoring displayed here is still relatively informal. Researchers in early children’s education have shown that there are processes to breed future leaders through mentoring. Children learn more by intuition.
Thus, as early as the 1700s, people were beginning to conceive of programmes and structures designed to encourage knowledge sharing. It is important, however, to emphasise that at this stage, access to mentors was usually restricted to the upper echelons of society. It would be another one hundred years before one-on-one aristocratic tutoring gave way to more widely-accessible, formalised mentorship programmes. In 1910 for example, the Big Brothers organisation was founded in the United States. It was conceived in order to increase youth health and well-being by assigning an older volunteer to a younger mentee. A similar programme was founded in 1918, Junior Achievement. Here, mentors were (and still are) recruited to increase the work readiness of young people as well as their financial literacy.
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