Is Mentoring a Lost Art?

The first steam locomotive

The first steam locomotive

The advent of the steam engine and the locomotive in the mid-1800’s ushered in a new era in America and throughout the world. That era was the industrial revolution.

Prior to the industrial revolution the world had largely been agrarian or small family-owned shops that provided necessary goods. Villages were largely self-sufficient, and unless one was involved in trade, there was little reason to travel from town to town. Small villages dotted the landscapes and around those small villages were farms where the local farmers grew their food. The farmers sold their wares at local markets and passed their skills on to their sons, and so on and so forth.

cobbler apprentice

A cobbler’s apprentice

In the village you would most likely find a blacksmith, trained by his father, and training his own son.  The same was true of the cooper, the silversmith, the butcher, the lawyer, and many others. Many tradesmen and farmers took on apprentices; young men who came to learn the craft, to learn a skill.  These farmers and tradesmen were what today we might refer to as mentors – skilled business people who pass on knowledge, who educate, who guide, provide correction when needed, praise when justified, and lift spirits when they sag.

industrial revolution

The mass production factory of the Industrial Revolution.

This had been the way for centuries. But the industrial revolution introduced new concepts in machinery, in production, and the inventions and discoveries of the industrial revolution gained an incredible, unstoppable momentum that fed the mind, led to more invention, more production, and faster ways to turn out even greater quantities of product. It fed a nation, and the world. Suddenly, the skills and education needed to learn a trade was no longer learned at the side of a master who already knew the craft. It was learned in colleges, universities, and trade schools. Education became as industrialized as our factories.

That momentum is still in motion today. It has morphed into the digital revolution, but the cogs of the great industrial and technological machine that is our society just keep spinning faster and faster.  Telephones, cell phones, instant messaging, social networking, computer aided design and manufacturing.  These are all incredible forces that allow us to do more in less time and to discover new ways of creating and doing, but have we also lost something in the process?

Apprenticeship is a rare thing these days. We hear talk of mentors, but what really is a mentor? I believe that a mentor is an experienced employee or manager who does all those things that a tradesman did with his apprentice: watch, guide, correct, support, help, and teach. But in a society that goes faster and faster and demands more, how can one mentor? They have their own needs to attend to. And what are we losing in the process?

Years ago, I took a job as a new account executive in the sales department of a company. I knew that I had people skills and the ability to talk to people. I was also keenly aware of my shortcomings: lack of industry knowledge, anxiety at cold-calling on prospects, and the self-confidence in myself and my product to “seal the deal.”

Within this company was a sales manager that I truly respected. He exuded the confidence I liked, but was in no way “smarmy,” or “hard-sell.”  I appreciated his skill. I appreciated his consultative approach to making a sale. He was someone I wanted to learn from and emulate. I decided that I needed a mentor and this was the man to do just that. I went to the local bookstore and purchased a book on mentoring. I sat down with the sales manager, gave him the book, told him the respect I had for his skills and that I wanted him to guide me, help me – mentor me.  He agreed. It ended there. I never received the guidance I asked for, the assistance I needed. I left the company shortly thereafter, feeling as if I had failed.

I train many, many people in my current position.  What I have learned is that we all learn at different paces and individuals gather and retain certain pieces of knowledge faster than others.  Within our high speed society, however, I fear that we want to have a “cookie-cutter” production line of people and we simply discard those who don’t move at an equivalent pace as others.

How many young people fresh out of school have great and deep untouched talent that we never let completely rise to the surface because we decide too early on “that they just aren’t right for the job.” We need to really mentor these new employees. They need to be treated as apprentices. stressed-manThey don’t know, and won’t know it all when they walk through the door, and we can’t use that rare Phenom we get as the benchmark. These young employees need to be guided and provided a safe and accommodating environment to learn, to make mistakes and not fear it marks the end.

Mentoring is alive, I just don’t think its well. We need to heal it. We need to embrace it. Be there to answer questions, to add support, to tell war stories. Remember what it was like when you learned. Don’t say, “Well that was how I had to learn it too.”  If you know it was the wrong way, why perpetuate it? Fix it. BE A MENTOR. Let’s get it back to being alive AND well.  I suspect we may all get something unexpected back in return – a deep respect that is earned.


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