Monday, November 2, 2015

The Importance of Mentorship

Forbes magazine did an excellent series of stories on mentor ship.  It is one of the most comprehensive sets I have encountered.  It is titled "Secrets of the Trade: Mentors, Protégés and Guides for Growth." And a very valuable secret it is too.
You will find pieces on the types of mentors, examples from several disciplines (boxing, college coaching, business and NASA), career advice and even how to find a mentor. 
For the economic development profession, this is a very important point. I was very fortunate to have a mentor who was patient, understanding, and enjoyed teaching. Equally important, he is a leader is the profession.  He was also my first boss, Wayne Sterling.
Wayne used to say economic development is the second highest calling, right behind helping one find God.  I think he is right. Helping someone find job is so important in ways I cannot describe, but definitely know. 
From a practical stand point, my mentor helped me understand the politics of projects, the way key stakeholders look at a project or initiative, how to frame discussion and decision memos, a succinct document is far more preferable, and read about business and industry (they are your customers). In addition, he taught me that empirical data is superior to almost anything else and that the client's perception really does matter.  Finally, and most important, economic developers must justify decisions by others (after all, it is their money).  
Economic development is not a typical profession. If you look at an overwhelming number of college and university catalogs, you will not see courses taught in economic development.  We do have week long courses and even EDI.  When you take your first job and it is in economic development, you will find literature, but the practical nuts and bolts are missing. Mentor ship can bridge this gap. 
Mentor ship is designed to help new employees navigate uncharted waters.  A mentor will help you with short cuts, time savers and be a sounding board for your challenges.  Experience counts.  Good mentors share it. Mine certainly did. 
We talk a lot about mentors and continued education, but as a nation and as a profession, I see it lacking.  Mentoring takes time and energy, but well worth it.  It needs to be structured.  Perhaps a challenge is people do not know how to be a mentor.  On the other side of the coin, perhaps the mentoree needs to understand the value of his/her mentors' time.  I think of unsuccessful intern programs as I write this sentence. 
However, I suspect an additional challenge in the economic development profession is the lack of a critical mass.  Usually, the number of economic development professionals in a city or county is limited. An exception is the location of the state economic development program.  
So, is it necessary for a mentor to be in the same profession? No, but a complimentary one is certainly desired.  As a profession, we need to develop mentors and mentoring.  
In conclusion, I am a better economic developer and a better person because of my mentor. My hope is all economic developers have the same experience. 
Link to the series:

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