Yoda and why Corp Mentorship Programs fall short

Christopher Fullam
7 min readNov 30, 2020

Importance of Mentorship

Most of us understand that the benefits of mentorship are many and significant. Mentee’s have benefited from personal and professional growth, while organizations have increased retention rates, productivity and proficiency, and improved overall engagement. In this tight market for top talent, organizations predictably look to mentorship as a benefit such to retain and attract talent.

“Can anyone recommend a reasonable bounty hunter other than Jango Fett?”

Some might say that a sincere recommendation is the most reliable indicator of the value added for any service. If we believe that statement is true, proficient mentorship must be a great indicator of potential success! Many successful individuals attribute all, or a large portion of their success to their mentors. Oprah Winfrey thanked Maya Angelou during an interview in which she said of her mentor, ‘She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. Mentors are important, and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.’

Another fairly recognizable success story, Mark Zuckerberg, credits his mentor Steve Jobs. When Jobs passed away Mark posted ‘Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.” Inspiring a talented individual to strive to reach for extraordinary impact is one of the vital tasks of any great mentor.

Corporate Mentorship Programs

Providing a quality mentorship program that achieves its potential is not as easy as it appears. As my father used to say “ People who say that doing a thing is easy, don’t know what the heck they are talking about. Never trust anyone who thinks something is a piece of cake. If it was that easy, it would be done already “. The challenge is that too many individuals believe that too many achievements are easy as 1–2–3. One finds this situation in mentorship programs as often as one finds green in Thala-Siren milk.

In this scrum scramble for tech talent, over 70% of Fortune 500 companies offer a mentorship program hoping to attract, grow and retain key personnel. They have found that offering mentorship is a very “sticky” benefit.

But how successful are these programs?

For the vast majority of these programs, the results are very disappointing. A study of 3,000 professionals indicated that only 25% of the study participants were ever assigned mentors and a significant percentage of those report minimal benefit from those relationships.

For something as “simple” as mentorship, shouldn’t we expect a more significant positive impact?

What could possibly get in the way of mentorship success?

Why Corporate Mentorship Programs fall short

Yoda: “You think Yoda stops teaching, just because his student does not want to hear? A teacher Yoda is. Yoda teaches like drunkards drink, like killers kill.”

It is hard to argue against Yoda as the best mentor of all time. He is surely the Mohammed Ali of Sci-Fi mentors. Gandalf might be a close second, but we can’t really compare impact to Middle Earth with the impact on the Galactic Empire can we?

Let’s use Master Yoda’s legacy to highlight why Corporate Mentorship Programs fail.

Yoda and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. LUCASFILM LTD./EVERETT COLLECTION

There was only one Yoda…

Corporate Mentorship programs start off with the numbers stacked against them. Reasonable mentorship requires dedicated mentorship time in addition to all the other “regular day job” tasks. In most companies the hierarchy usually has a span of control (number of direct reports) of between 10 and 15 individuals for each manager. Even if the organization’s target was to offer mentorship to only 50% of the organization each manager would be mentoring between 5–8 folks.

Bottom line is that there just aren’t enough mentors in the typical organization to provide quality mentorship to all those that need and desire it. As a result, the stated organizational benefit of retention fails to deliver as promised and the majority that feel disenfranchised continue to walk out the door. The talent search for replacement is added to the talent search for growth.

This is bad, but it gets worse.

Yoda worked hard to be a great mentor…

Yoda trained and mentored Jedi for over 800 years. He obviously had lots of varied experience. It is also a little known fact that during his early years Yoda sat for many degrees and certifications. He understood that being a great mentor required training in how to listen, motivate, encourage, and create a compelling plan of action for the mentee. He knew that if he wanted to be a skilled mentor, he would need to hone those skills.

Corporate Mentorship programs rarely provide the type of mentorship training that creates proficient mentors. It is often assumed that the skills required to be an effective mentor are inherent in all (or most) managers. My experience and the results from the study above prove that they are not. Mentorship is a separate discipline from managing and coaching. To be effective the mentor requires different core competencies. The assumption that because an individual has been promoted a time or two, they can succeed as a mentor is faulty.

Yoda wants to be a mentor…

Master Yoda had many significant successes, but he also had a couple of truly monumental failures. And yet, Yoda kept on mentoring through the highs, lows and reduction of mentee’s for 800 years. Talk about commitment!

Would many of those senior managers who were “volun-told” to mentor others have chosen to be a mentor? Certainly there are some, but for many, mentorship is not an autotelic activity. Surely, what they enjoy doing are the tasks associated with their day job. Some are mentoring because they don’t feel they have a choice. They are “taking one for the team.” Their motivation is wrong.

The dichotomy between the day-job activities and mentorship tasks are stark particularly when talking about tech teams. It is likely that a portion of the Senior Managers not only don’t possess the skills to succeed as a mentor, they also don’t have the desire to acquire those skills. They see the benefits of mentorship but always prioritize their teams technical responsibilities first. That is after all, their primary responsibility, what they are good at, and use skills they value highly.

Yoda has lots of time on his hands…

Over his 800 years of mentorship, Master Yoda worked with many Jedi Padawans (apprentices). There is no doubt that they all benefitted from his tutelage if they were sincere in their desire to learn.

But thinking back, even to Yoda’s time with Master Gormo, I can’t recall a time when Yoda mentored more than one Padawan. There are two very good reasons for that. First, effective mentorship requires a significant time commitment. Trust is required, and trust must be earned. It takes time and a history of being trust-worthy to build a relationship.

Second, the Jedi Code states “A Jedi Master may not have more than one Padawan”.

Such wisdom in the Jedi Code!

The tech industry is growing rapidly. There are insufficient experienced resources readily available to build new products and services while addressing the ever growing mountain of tech. Effective mentorship requires a time commitment that most will find difficult to carve out. Do we think that Luke would have been able to let himself fall into Cloud City’s depths rather than take a hand from Vader if his mentorship consisted of monthly 30 minute coffees with Master Yoda?

A Conclusion even a Wookiee can Grok

(C-3PO said that, not me…)

Corporate mentorship programs have certainly helped some individuals succeed. But the truth of the matter is we are still only scratching the surface of what a high quality mentorship program can provide for organizations and individuals.

It is very difficult to accurately recognize an individual’s potential for success. Just as there are many examples of superstars identified for their potential and nurtured to success, there are examples of individuals who defied negative assessments from experts on their way to success.

Michael Jordan was cut from his High School JV basketball team, Fred Astaire received the following assessment from his first screen test “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” Charles Darwin was evaluated as “below the common standard of intellect”.

There are just too many contributing factors. Offering mentorship opportunities to a small select portion of the organization ensures that high potential individuals will continue to walk out your doors.

These internal mentorship programs almost always fail to deliver on their potential because;

  • Pool of potential mentors is too small.
  • Some mentors don’t possess the requisite skills.
  • Mentors may not have the proper motivation.
  • Some mentors prioritize technical responsibilities.
  • Mentors’ current workload prohibits a serious mentorship time commitment.

The good news is that there is a better way.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions, I am happy to engage.

Until we chat again, please stay safe and healthy and remember -

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

Chris

email: chris@ajito.io

Originally published at https://ajito.io on November 30, 2020.

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Christopher Fullam

X-Googler & Co-Founder at Ajito. Leveraging over 30 yrs exp. building & growing tech orgs to achieve Clarity, Predictability, and Engagement.