Mentoring the Next Generation

by Jimmy L. Smith

We must reach out to all those around us and pass on our knowledge.

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, the noted author and lecturer John C. Maxwell asked, “Who is your legacy?” Essentially, Maxwell is asking with whom are we working to prepare to take over when we leave? How are you or your organization prepared to answer that question? No matter your position in your organization, you provide leadership and perform a valuable service inside and outside the workplace.

Many organizations have developed leadership competencies and characteristics for positions, only to find something missing as people weren’t ready to “step in” and “hit the ground running” when vacancies occurred. These organizations discovered they needed to recognize that all leaders need to develop those “waiting in the wings.”

To address this issue, many organizations have included a competency on mentoring to help achieve the desired level of preparedness. However, they subsequently found that just adding it to a list of competencies wasn’t enough as people were still not adequately prepared to fill the void. It takes involvement and action to put things into practice, both personally and organizationally.

Seeing the Bigger Picture
Succession planning is more than just identifying those who will take over when we or our co-workers move on. It also involves proactively developing the skills and knowledge our successors will need when they do take over. This means organizations need to provide training to expand their paradigms of thought so they have the “bigger picture,” without which they won’t make their organization—or themselves—successful.

Successors also need to be given the opportunity to work on the types of projects or functions they will eventually be expected to lead, and whenever possible, the opportunity to lead and learn. Mentoring future leaders for a given function should never be limited to the few: if it is good for the few, it is good for the many. The accumulated skills and knowledge of the many works like super-glue to make the organization stronger. We should reach out to all those around us and help everyone with whom we interact.

So how do we make this happen? How can we possibly mentor everyone? One way we can achieve this is by encouraging those we mentor to, in turn, mentor others—passing on the skills and knowledge they have learned along the way. One of the important attributes that can be passed along to those being mentored is the appropriate attitude regarding leadership and the ongoing development of others.

Learning is Lifelong
Maybe we aren’t currently in a leadership position, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t providing leadership to our organizations. It certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be helping others to develop themselves. Equally important, though, we should continually be working to improve ourselves, because in today’s culture, everyone needs to be lifelong learners.

We need to keep our minds open to new learning opportunities to acquire, practice and hone our leadership skills. It is through these opportunities that we strengthen our value to our organizations and communities, and more importantly, to ourselves. It is also through the use and practice of our new skills and knowledge that we are able to meet the challenges of today, tomorrow and the future.

The number of ways we can learn about leadership and, in the process, develop and prepare ourselves for the future is practically limitless. Certainly, we practice leadership skills every day in the workplace. However, in our personal lives and in our communities, we also find opportunities to lead, grow, mentor and be mentored by others. That means we can’t just sit on the sidelines as a spectator—we must be engaged and become involved in learning and helping others learn. We must think of ourselves as farmers who prepare the ground, plant seeds, fertilize, nurture and grow the next generation.

We are all leaders, and conversely, we are all followers. We must all become practitioners of lifelong learning and mentoring. Similar to John Maxwell, we can begin by asking ourselves the more personal question, “Who is my legacy?” If we can’t answer that question in less than a minute, we should look around to see who we can mentor to pass on our knowledge. It may also mean we need to look to see whose legacy we can become. You may never mentor a future Steve Jobs, but that isn’t necessarily the measure of success as a mentor.

I’m reminded of something the late Forest E. Witcraft—a scholar, teacher and Boy Scout executive—said in the October 1950 issue of Scouting magazine, which I still recall reading. I’m sure he’d forgive me if I paraphrase: “One hundred years from now, the world will be a better place because I was important in the lives of others.” That is the heart of mentoring and helping others: freely passing on what it’s taken a lifetime to learn so others will benefit. It’s up to us to create that unbroken chain of events and opportunities that will lead to wonderful accomplishments we can share. iBi

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