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I was just an intern at a Connecticut newspaper when a family friend in the business asked the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Red Smith if he would offer me some advice. Red’s invite came in the form of a typed and hand-corrected letter, and I remember well meeting in his creaky home den where his writing desk stood like an altar.
What he said has grown hazy over the years, but it was inspiring that such a legend of the day took time for an adolescent kid who still couldn’t spell but so wanted to be a writer. This was the beginning of what would be decades of mentoring, which, as we all know, is such a critical link to anyone’s career.
When you hear people accept lifetime-achievement awards, or any award for that matter, you often hear them talk about the great mentors in their lives. It may be a seventh-grade art teacher who stayed after school or an assistant dean who helped find the right grad school. So too in the workplace can the right coaching and mentoring make all the difference in the world. Indeed, study after study shows that we tend to stay in our jobs longer, work more productively and follow smarter career paths when we keep getting good counsel from a veteran.
But executives tell me they sometimes struggle with the concept of coaching today. Somehow it doesn’t fit into where things are headed. It’s great, for example, that so many more people can work from home. But can you really bring through the ranks someone you’ve never or rarely met? Or suppose you both do work in the same office—but discover that today’s more open workstations are not really conducive for “desk-side” chats. Add in the gig economy and the growing pressure managers feel to push for results, and mentoring seems like a rare luxury.
Of course, the good news is technology is helping this—hello, you can Skype that distance colleague, to mention one obvious tool. The smarter work environments have also become much more collaborative, and here the head coach must learn how to be more agile than authoritative. In the story-telling business, we call this “show, don’t tell” your tale, and so it can be with be the art of mentoring.
Ultimately, I suppose artificial intelligence will create a manager who will stack up quite well against us humans in all this. But for now, my hope is that the mentor in all of us forges on in any environment. Sometimes, as Red Smith managed that fine afternoon, an inspiring nudge can last a lifetime.