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Is Mentoring Becoming a Lost Art?

Does is matter to the field of Organization Development?

As an elder in the field, I am, hopefully, the living embodiment of wisdom from years of meaningful and varied life and work experience. I often share my stories (and there are many) of unexpected success, resilience, and learning after “failure,” sacrificing my comfort in the interest of a client’s learning or opportunity to shine; or stepping off into fear and discovering it was the right risk to take. When I share these stories with younger or newer practitioners, I see a light come through their expression; clarity, and deeper insights that may not have been otherwise accomplished.

As experienced practitioners, sages, elders, and peers; we hold the wisdom of our teachers. We have treasured, nourished, and even enhanced their guidance into new and sometimes daunting stories with the potential to teach and inform others. Are we passing this knowledge and learning from the field forward in a spirit of generosity?

This short statement was triggered by an article published on LinkedIn on July 13, 2022, by Tim Merry, Systems Change Strategist, and cofounder with Tuesday Ryan-Hart, at The Outside, an “artisan” practice in OD and Change. Tim counted me among the mentors that have impacted the quality of his work, and his love for the work. I was humbled to see my name there; and then I accepted, yes, I am indeed an active mentor though I may not consciously label myself as such. Reading Tim’s article brought to mind how much I value my mentors and lament the fact that mentoring is less prominent in the field of OD than in the days when I walked the streets of Bethel, Maine encountering and having the richest informal interactions with icons whose work I was studying; who didn’t separate themselves; who gave of their time and attention with such generosity and interest. It was natural and it was essential in so many ways. Those wise ones opened doors; gave us assurance, courage, and a thirst for learning more and always digging deeper.

In 2002 the OD Network funded a study as part of the Dick Beckhard Mentoring Project – highlighting and honoring the scope and depth of mentoring that Beckhard and other founders gave to the field. The study was the first step in an initiative to revitalize that “mentoring culture” by creating a practical structure to ensure quality mentoring as a core process funded, promoted, and implemented by the Organization Development Network. Over a period of several months, a committee of nine members interviewed a select group of 35 senior professionals from North and South America and Europe: inquiring into the specifics of their experience with Dick Beckhard and his colleagues as mentors. Our objective was to measure the impact/benefits of mentoring on the careers of successful practitioners but also identify the qualities and practices employed. The outcomes were phenomenal as each person described in detail the meaningful and enduring knowledge, insights, and yes deeper secrets for proficiency; but most importantly the nature of the unique relationship between mentor and mentee; a testament to why mentoring is so entrenched in our legacy. Historically, mentors experienced this role as the most natural thing to do once you reached a certain station in your own experience; it was an honor, a joy.

At the 2010 ODN Conference, I opened the annual Beckhard session with a short talk; a collection of provocative and compelling stories about my experience with Beckhard and others as my mentors. I was amazed at the overflow of attendees and their eagerness to experience mentoring meetings throughout the conference and hopefully beyond. The conference continues to be a workable hub for mentoring connections; however, the sustained practice must be an organic and continuous process if we are to meet the goals of that 2002 initiative and perpetuate the growth and development of people and the field in the generous spirit of our founders.

I sense in my students and younger colleagues a longing for that type of connection; from people who have “been there,” seen real action; the opportunity to validate our significance as a discipline, and legitimacy as an indispensable resource for change.

When and if we abandon our way of mentoring, we lose a significant part of our past that can only be sustained through personal engagement. It is a unique avenue for learning and encouragement that cannot be fulfilled in classrooms, workshops, or reading books and articles. We always need those coming after us to be better, more insightful, creative, and adaptive if we are to answer the call of a world in which the very nature of change is constantly changing in shorter cycles.

Organization Development is potentially all that our founders envisioned, and more when enlarged and tailored to the realities of today. We are tasked with bringing forth their intentions for a better world by elevating humanity alongside the market share, profit, and growth. Mentoring is only one pathway; however, it holds a unique place in the full mosaic for ensuring our future.

Mentoring is a relationship for mutual learning. Therefore, I address this call to everyone who cares deeply about the field, the whole, and sustaining subtleties of our essence.

What could be more powerful or penetrating than just the right story to answer the questions that our colleagues may have never thought to ask?

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