Some things haven’t changed all that much in 3,000 years.


4 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.


The con­cept of men­tor­ing dates back around 3,000 years to Homer’s Odyssey. In that epic Greek poem, the hero Odysseus entrusts his son to his friend Men­tor while fight­ing the Tro­jan War. Dur­ing this time, Men­tor cares for and nur­tures the young boy.

Our notion of a men­tor has evolved since Homer laid pen to parch­ment. While men­tor­ship is wide­ly asso­ci­at­ed with young men and women seek­ing advice from elders, more expe­ri­enced exec­u­tives are now see­ing out pro­fes­sion­al coach­ing ser­vices due to the chal­lenges of dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion. Last year, a com­bined $1 bil­lion was spent on per­son­al and busi­ness coach­es.

Exec­u­tives are right to seek this help. Across 15 indus­tries, rang­ing from man­u­fac­tur­ing to ener­gy, 47 per­cent of CEOs are chal­lenged to make progress in dig­i­tal busi­ness, accord­ing to a study from Gart­ner. But too many orga­ni­za­tions are miss­ing a key ingre­di­ent in their coach­ing pro­grams. It comes down to this: All men­tors can coach, but not all coach­es can men­tor.

If you’re tru­ly com­mit­ted to learn­ing the skills need­ed to lead your com­pa­ny to a suc­cess­ful dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion, don’t just look for a coach to strength­en your knowl­edge. Seek out a pro­gram that deliv­ers what Homer wrote all those years ago — a true men­tor who will nur­ture and sup­port your growth over the long term.

Relat­ed: The Secret to Find­ing a Great Men­tor: Don’t Ask to Be Men­tored

Men­tor­ship, like mar­riage, only works when both sides are com­mit­ted to the rela­tion­ship. Too many coach­ing pro­grams give lit­tle thought to the pair­ing process. The Atlantic notes that some even out­source men­tor­ing duties to con­sul­tants rather than exec­u­tives who have been in the shoes of the mentee.

This one-way-street approach won’t work in an era where busi­ness­es are fail­ing as they strug­gle with dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion. A grow­ing num­ber of insti­tu­tions are tak­ing a dif­fer­ent approach that pairs acad­e­mia and men­tor­ship. SUNY Empire State Col­lege has numer­ous men­tors work­ing with­in its halls, as does Sarah Lawrence Col­lege. As Aca­d­e­m­ic Direc­tor for Colum­bia University’s Exec­u­tive MS in Tech Man­age­ment, I over­see a pro­gram where stu­dents learn from a pool of 260 top busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als, while at the same time earn­ing a seri­ous cre­den­tial.

Rather than assign­ing each men­tor a stu­dent, pair­ings at Colum­bia play out sim­i­lar­ly to a sports draft. Each men­tor selects a stu­dent based on indi­vid­ual busi­ness plans the stu­dents cre­ate. When a men­tor choos­es you out of any num­ber of appli­cants, they are more like­ly to be invest­ed in your suc­cess. Think of it like a cor­po­rate board. The ones who are most pro­duc­tive are those whose mem­bers have defined roles, assigned to the indi­vid­u­als most suit­ed to those tasks. They have clear­ly defined respon­si­bil­i­ties and, most impor­tant­ly, are work­ing on some­thing with which they have a strong con­nec­tion. The same is true with men­tors.

An effec­tive men­tor pre­pares their stu­dent for all aspects of busi­ness, includ­ing the impor­tant step of pre­sent­ing a tech­nol­o­gy solu­tion to inter­nal exec­u­tive boards or ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists. At pro­grams like Columbia’s, men­tors play an active role in the over­all edu­ca­tion of the stu­dent, includ­ing the devel­op­ment of their final Master’s project, which is a three-chap­ter busi­ness plan. Through face-to-face meet­ings at the student’s place of work, the men­tor not only helps hone their project, but also gives them valu­able “soft skills” that can take their idea from con­cept to imple­men­ta­tion.

I’ve seen the results of this mod­el first­hand. Colum­bia alum­nus Matthew Smith cred­it­ed his men­tor David Widup, a for­mer exec­u­tive and Prin­ci­pal at N. Allen & Asso­ciates, LLC, with help­ing him deeply under­stand the inter­sec­tion of busi­ness and tech­nol­o­gy. He applied those lessons to his job at AT&T, where he helped launch DIRECTV’s Agile Cen­ter for Excel­lence. With­out sup­port from the key play­ers in your orga­ni­za­tion, a big idea like Matthew’s will remain just that. This is where a true men­tor can make all the dif­fer­ence.

Relat­ed: 5 Rea­sons Why Struc­tured Men­tor­ing Can Accel­er­ate Start­up Growth

Like Odysseus, exec­u­tives are fight­ing a war. But the bat­tle to inte­grate dig­i­tal growth with­in their com­pa­nies will require a strong guide to win. If you’re one of the many exec­u­tives going to bat­tle, seek out a coach­ing pro­gram that embod­ies the ideals of Men­tor — one where you are paired with some­one ded­i­cat­ed to your growth as a leader who will nur­ture your tal­ents through the months and years ahead.

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