Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mentorship: Beyond Leadership

Firms are aggregations of people who are positioned in the framework of an organization and are enabled to progress over time, horizontally and vertically. Workmen, executives, managers, leaders and directors constitute the organization. This paper discusses why the concept of an organization should add mentors to the inventory of the human resource asset base in an organization.

Workmen, executives, managers, leaders and directors

Workmen are direct employees working on the physical production and production support processes in a firm. Lower level educational qualifications and experiential limitations often make the adage “once a workman, always a workman” unfortunately true. While a few workmen do cross the barriers through supervisory roles within the shop floor environment, organizations are typically designed to accord mobility only to those personnel who are inducted into executive cadres on the basis of professional qualifications. This situation needs innovative organizational and educational paradigms to break the mould, which probably is the subject of another discussion.

Executives, though well educated, are operating professionals who learn and perform largely as per directions. Executives who display an exceptional flair for conceptualizing, analyzing and executing become managers early on in corporate life. The brightest of the managers grow as general managers of sites or functions. Most also become leaders of businesses or corporations. Some will be whole-time directors on the boards, which also comprise outside experts as part-time independent directors. Very few, however, end up becoming mentors.

The journey of a professional, from the time he or she starts his or career as an executive to the time he or she becomes a mentor, is an unpredictable and rollercoaster ride. During this journey, spanning decades of professional life, intrinsic leadership traits in an individual at the grassroots level as well as corporate leadership proclivities at the apex level are equally important.

Executives are competent professionals who keep the day-to-day operations moving. Managers are competent executives who plan, and get the budgets implemented optimally as per plans. Leaders are competent managers who envision a new future, craft an enabling strategy, and create a performing organization that converts the vision into a reality. Directors are leaders who are willing to take business, legal and governance responsibilities. Who then are mentors?


Mentors are competent leaders who nurture the organizations to have the right mix of competent executives, managers, leaders and directors, all of whom play a role in building the business of a firm and enhancing shareholder value. Mentor is a leader who cares for the organization and its people to build their value through a competency cum governance framework. A mentor, having been a leader and a director knows the business well enough to position the firm positively in the industry and the economy.

The transformation of a manager into a leader is often performance driven. However, the transformation of a leader into a mentor is as contextual and environmental as it is personal and professional. The transformational challenges and opportunities are also uniquely determined. A manager tends to be an executive in his own right for most part. A leader ceases to be a true leader when he starts managing. A mentor may in contrast never be able to separate leadership from mentorship.

While it is well accepted that a firm should have a leadership team for day to day execution and a board of directors for governance and mentorship, the concept of having a fulltime mentor in the company has not been established in the corporate practice. Towering leaders of Indian conglomerate groups such as JRD Tata and GD Birla did serve as mentors to their group leadership teams, but in informal capacities. It is only in the 2000s that the concept of a leader turning a mentor for the organization came to be recognized when Mr Narayana Murthy the founder-CEO of Infosys Technologies became its Chief Mentor. His was the first formal and bold attempt by a successful leader to transit into a mentorship role, even ahead of time. While there is a clear need to have more such initiatives at leadership and firm levels, his example did not initiate a new wave of organizational redesign in Indian corporations.

Are leaders against the concept of mentorship, both in terms of their own transformation into mentors, and acceptance of mentors in their midst?

Always a leader, and never a mentor?

The position of mentor does not reflect a popular practice in corporate structuring, organizational design or legal framework. The examples set by Narayana Murthy in Infosys and Bill Gates in Microsoft are exceptions rather than rules. The mentorship concept therefore needs passionate advocacy as well as objective evaluation as an instrument of larger organizational benefit.

Leadership provides a singular opportunity for outstanding professionals to guide the destiny of a firm. It provides the power to perform and the canvas to achieve. Chief executive officers (CEOs) are often buffeted by performance compulsions and obsessed with themselves as singular drivers of performance. Many are unable to accord a due role to even legally mandated board of directors. It is therefore not unnatural that CEOs are reluctant to debate the concept of mentorship as a discrete senior level position, let alone accept a mentor at the helm. As a corollary, CEOs who have been at the pinnacles of power in the organizations are also reluctant to move over to an apparently sinecure position of chief mentor.

The ownership context of a firm possibly provides some basis for a more delineated determination of managerial, leadership and mentorship roles. Family owned and patriarchal firms have a greater flexibility to move their family CEOs informally into mentorship positions while non-family owned professional firms have no greater flexibility than providing non-executive chairmanship positions to potential mentors. However, the concept of mentorship deserves a more formal and popular positioning in the corporate landscape.

Potential of mentorship

Mentors, typically, are successful leaders who have perspectives larger and wider than the perspectives of the firms they have led. They are intellectual achievers who have built their businesses competitively and placed their firms on sustainable growth trajectories. They are well known nationally and globally and are capable of acting as brand ambassadors not only for their firms but also the industries they operate in and their countries. Potential mentors exude high ethical values and have passion for communicating them. They would have built leadership talent in their organizations that can take on larger responsibilities seamlessly from them.

True mentors are those who move away from executive leadership positions and focus on fulfilling certain qualitative aspects of business which only they can focus on. Having been consummate leaders, they are aware of the pitfalls and potentialities of leadership. By continuing full time in the organizations but taking up mentorship roles such leaders can add strength to the new leadership teams. Fundamentally, leaders who move as mentors create a positive leadership vacuum that elevates potential leaders into performing leadership roles.

There are two keys to ensure success of mentorship. The keys serve to distinguish the mentors from executive leaders on one hand and boards on the other. Such role differentiation will promote synergy and eliminate conflict.

At the executive level, mentors, for example, can focus on means as the leaders focus on ends; mentors can focus on risk management while the leaders focus on taking risks to achieve goals; mentors can build grassroots leadership in the organization while the leaders focus on building their next levels of leadership; and most importantly mentors can promote deeper organizational values even as the leaders are engaged in enhancing value of their businesses.

At the board level, mentors, being full time executive leaders can fulfill a role that is different from the ones performed by independent directors (including chairmen) on the boards. Directors bring sagacity and caution to the board and corporate matters. They hardly have the ability and resources as full-time leaders could have to convert their sagacious advice into effective execution. Mentors can provide the continuity and act as the bridge between executive leadership and non-executive board.

Institutionalizing mentorship

Given the normal corporate dynamics neither leaders nor directors could be expected to proactively and wholeheartedly welcome mentors in their midst. A regulatory framework which provides for a full time chief mentor in an organization could help. Every CEO who crosses the age of 60 years should have the choice between the ages of 60 and 65 years and compulsion by the age of 65 years to transform into a mentorship role, which could continue until he attains a final superannuation age of 75 years. Appointment of chief mentor would need to be a Clause 49 corporate governance stipulation.

The mentor of an organization should have the freedom under the corporate governance umbrella to interact with all functions, participate in all leadership meetings at his discretion and address town hall meetings which the leadership team could attend at its discretion. Certain key governance functions such as risk management, corporate governance and management audit (not internal audit) should be required to be formally established and made directly accountable to the chief mentor. The chief mentor need not be the chairman of the board. In fact, combining the positions would negate the benefits of this key supplemental position of mentorship.

The office of the chief mentor should be fully budgeted and resourced with compensation levels not less than those enjoyed by him prior to his becoming a chief mentor. Inbreeding of mentors and potential cozy relationships or conflicts between the chief mentor and the leadership teams are likely issues that could erode the effectiveness of this institution. In-sourcing of mentors from other organizations is not necessarily a solution. In-sourcing would in fact be an erroneous approach. The fundamental purpose of transiting to mentorship is to enable the leader address add additional perspectives while leveraging the past full time capabilities.

Mentors would be effective largely on the basis of their established acceptability, intellect and statesmanship. Initial institutionalization through a Clause 49 mechanism provides faster and wider spread of the concept, and is unlikely to be a necessary requirement for the success of the mentorship concept. The author hopes that more leaders and corporations would follow the Infosys model in successful mentorship.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 15, 2009


Narayanan said...

Timely advice for major corporations and promises to be a major "force multiplier" and a competitive advantage. I offer two thoughts on this matter.
1. Chief Mentor while singular, Mentor(s) must be in plural i.e. there should be a pipeline of this talent for sustained advantage and long term impact.
2. In addition to budgets and other resources, mentor(s) should also play the role of "spotting the uncoachables" as aptly articulated by Marshall Goldsmith
and should suggest remedial measures as appropriate for the benefit of key stakeholders.

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