Mentorship: Leadership for the 21st Century

Jan. 20, 2017
For a better educated workforce, practicing mentorship is more effective than an outdated style of leadership dating back to the pre-industrial age.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, my guess is you’ve been exposed to an onslaught of information about leading and influencing different generations. The primary focus has been around how to lead and motivate millennials, but the question we are failing to ask is whether our existing ideas around leadership are even relevant for today’s workforce.

In studying and working with teams during the past decade, I’ve found that the issue we face in increasing the motivation and productivity of our employees is less about trying to understand how to better apply dated leadership skills, and more on changing our approach to interacting with teams and the people on them. Historically for example leadership has been about communication, influence and motivation. The challenge that we face today however is that more employees have higher levels of education then ever before. This knowledge of course encourages a greater desire for contribution and participation in team and organizational decisions, something that a historic top-down approach to communication and leadership extinguishes.

When we reflect upon the changes in how teachers and students interact in today’s educational environment, it sheds light on why an outdated hierarchy of leadership dating back to the pre-industrial age is simply ineffective. So try as we might, what has worked in past decades is simply outdated and ineffective.

The key then to getting the most from employees functioning in today’s working environment is to provide mentorship. Focus less on “doing the right things” as Peter Drucker once suggested, and instead help employees be more introspective, providing guidance and support in the communication and decision-making process rather than attempting to thrust influence over it.

There are three reasons why mentorship is the best approach to engaging today’s multi-generational workforce.

  1. Younger generations aren’t accustomed to a top-down approach to leadership. They’ve spent more time than previous generations in a classroom environment where learning is a collaborative event. Teachers and students are partners in learning, with technology playing a substantial role in the learning and development process. I was shocked for example when lecturing several years ago at a local university when all of the students opened up a laptop and spent time conversing and taking notes during the talk. Gone are the days of sitting up straight and keeping your eyes on the chalkboard.
  2. Leaders today also have more to do than ever before. The days of a manager or supervisor putting their feet up while their employees are hard at work are no longer a reality. Instead many leaders actually have more responsibilities than their people beyond managing and leading their team. With little time available to coach and set expectations in conjunction with employees seemingly not being as responsive to these dated approaches, many leaders resort to simply disengaging from their people.
  3. Most importantly, a top-down approach to communication and management is actually a de-motivator in most instances, leading to lower levels of employee engagement and productivity. It’s no coincidence for example that some of the fastest growing and most profitable organizations today such as Hyatt Hotels, Carmax and Tata Capital also have some of the highest levels of employee engagement.

At the end of it all however, there is a simple way to confirm why mentorship is the only effective alternative to leading today’s workforce. Ask yourself in all honesty, if given the opportunity would you rather be guided and mentored by someone you respected and who had the knowledge and experience to support your own personal development, or would you instead like to be told what you should be doing, when you should be doing it and how it should be done? In reflection on this question I think you’ll find that mentorship is the only effective option.

Shawn Casemore, president and founder of Casemore and Co, Inc., is a consultant, speaker and author of Operational Empowerment: Collaborate, Innovate, and Engage to Beat the Competition, published by McGraw-Hill.

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