“Today there are rare occasions when you find people who are willing to visit, teach high school students, and enjoy it. Especially at predominantly African American schools where we are looked down upon with stereotypes and chosen to fail. What makes you different, is that you wanted and cared about us differing from our surroundings.
With your encouragement I have walked away with the knowledge of running a business. And, thanks to you I have found a whole other view of the world and the kindness of strangers.” -- Tiffany, 14 years old.
Over 25 years ago, I stepped into an inner-city school and began a journey that changed my life. And to my absolute delight, it also changed a number of young Black kids lives along the way. The experience was a gift to me – such a gift that I was inspired to write the book Teach to Work – but more importantly, I’ve been told it was inspirational and life-changing to many students. Hundreds of them. In fact, Chris Gardner, the author of The Pursuit of Happiness, told me, “You have made a difference in the lives of these kids, and most likely you have made a difference in the lives of their kids as well, through what I call ‘spiritual genetics’. You see, Patty, they have grabbed hold of your light, maybe because they had no other.”
I started a program that mentored underprivileged high school students, a program that ultimately grew national in scope to 14 states. We came into the classroom several times a semester, and we tackled real-world problems in a format I call Project-Based Mentoring®. The students came up with project ideas and community solutions, and we discussed – both one-on-one and as a group – how those ideas and dreams could become realities. Master plans were created by students, and real businesses, turning profits (or non-profits) were formed. Students would be accountable for progress and would eventually have to defend their ideas, facing a classroom of colleagues and professionals. Many entered competitions and won. Some of them even formed companies that are still in business today.
But I’m not telling you this because I want to stand on a podium and say, “look what I did.” Rather, I want to inspire you – no matter what background, age, or societal class you associate with –please consider joining in such an effort. I believe it is one of the greatest ways we can prepare our next generation for success. And at the same time, you will gain leadership skills that will make you a better leader, a better listener, and an invaluable team member on your own career path forward. Where better to sharpen those skills and give back to the community than in neighborhoods that don’t necessarily have a model for success? Allow me to give you six reasons to consider doing this right now.
Mentoring Builds Confidence
You will be looked up to by a body of youth who admire you for what you have accomplished. You’ll help excite and motivate students by honing their project plans and steps to become a successful entrepreneur are many to take, but having sound leadership skills is a paramount one. It can be daunting to develop such skills from scratch, however, mentorship provides an inspiring opportunity to grow and flourish as a leader. It helps build one's confidence and explore skills you never even knew you had. Through a mentorship relationship—which includes steps such as analyzing how decisions were made, discussing time management tactics, and developing empathetic listening skills—you will have the building blocks of becoming an empowered leader. It’s important to nurture this growth every step of the way in order to kickstart your professional development journey down the path of success. You’ll learn that your experiences – and even your missteps – are more valued than any book or theory that these students read because you are real. You are accessible.
You will not only be appreciated by your students but your peers as well. Why? Because you are giving back to the next generation. You are newly appreciated for your mentorship efforts all the while nurturing your own leadership skills.
Mentoring Develops Character
One of the greatest responsibilities a mentor takes on is an obligation to be a model of good character to his mentees. Tim Kautz and James J. Heckman researched what they call non-cognitive skills, such as character, motivation, and goals – considered extremely valuable traits in the labor market. They found that the most successful non-cognitive skills are taught under mentoring environments.
By being reliable, doing what you say, demonstrating honest discourse, and providing unwavering support, a mentor demonstrates qualities that his mentee mimics. As part of this process, a mentor will often reconsider his own personal and moral inventory, particularly when he is being looked up to and observed.
Mentoring Teaches Perseverance
The mentor and students will also witness how a hypothesis and plan shifts during the project’s execution, and together, they’ll learn how to persevere. When the mentee experiences frustration, the overarching goal might need to be revisited or modified. The steady hand and experience of the mentor teaches the value of offering motivation and staying the course. During these challenging times, the mentor and mentee explore how to be critical thinkers, and how to re-shift the trajectory toward new outcomes. It is at the final presentation and oral defense that the team revisits their difficult pathway and the importance of their perseverance. These lessons not only highlight grit to the students, but they also give the mentor new rigor and insight into perseverance to bring back to the workplace.
Mentoring Promotes Collaboration
One of the traits of a good mentor – and a good corporate leader – is the ability to promote collaboration. As the mentor leads an intergenerational dialogue through obstacles, difficulties, or new strategies, the mentor expands his own communication skills by honing new ways of presenting complex ideas – simply. In addition, the mentor must exercise new levels of patience and tolerance while a young mentee absorbs new skills. The team or individual led by the mentor is learning how to work together toward success. The mentor teaches, but also observes, the importance of positive thinking and a supportive team environment. And the mentor observes how the best ideas result from collaboration among the entire team.
Mentoring Enhances Listening
The mentor also learns how to listen. When he appears before a bustling class, or put in another way, when he is before a group of people that is not paid to listen to him, he is forced to evaluate how he can better listen, and better engage an audience. The mentor learns how to direct the conversation while being flexible enough to provide for input from others. He learns how to listen, while still achieving direction.
Mentoring Builds Goodwill
Finally, when you head out in the community to mentor students, (or you mentor new hires in your workplace) you foster goodwill. You represent your company as an ambassador of conduct and best practices. There is an immediate ripple effect that sends the message “this person and this firm cares. They are investing in the community and in the future of the next generation.”
Moreover, your mentees will never stop being an “advertisement” for your firm. You have created a life-changing moment for them, and that moment will never be forgotten. But at the same time, you will never be the same, either. You’ll be experiencing your own life-changing moments and leadership lessons as well, and when you get your first batch of letters from students, I hope you choose to continue this important work for decades.
Written by PATTY ALPER, the president of the Alper Portfolio Group, a mentoring consultant to post-secondary schools and corporations.