If all your teachers walked, talked, thought and looked like you, your education would suffer greatly. What makes you think mentorship is any different? Whether protégé or mentor, when cultivating connections, diversity matters to maximize learning and growth.
Talent takes many forms. As a leader, you may know this intellectually, yet still find yourself guiding those who resemble you. In the recent HBR article, “Mentor People Who Aren’t Like You,” author Richard Farnell states, “Even those who believe that diversity improves creativity, problem solving, and decision making naturally invest in and support the development of the subordinates who are most like them.” This is rooted, Farnell explains, in the way most mentors see subordinates as younger versions of themselves, and automatically assume these individuals have the greatest potential.
Stop the Austin Power’s Mini-Me mentality! If not, you overlook the possible contribution of employees from numerous other demographic and social groups, a huge loss in terms of undeveloped capabilities. A huge loss for you personally in developing empathy and relating skills. A huge loss to transform your company culture to one less judgmental of talent who may look or think different than the industry “status quo.”
As a protégé you may gravitate towards choosing a mentor you feel comfortable with due to similarities, but reaching out to someone dramatically different than you can provide a massive perspective shift. For example, learning from someone from another generation, gender or country can open both minds and doors that otherwise would remain closed.
Take 52-year-old Chip Conley, for example, who started a boutique hotel company while in his mid-20’s and after 24 years as CEO, sold it at the bottom of the Great Recession. Uncertain of his future, he was approached by Airbnb in 2013 and asked to help this rapidly growing tech startup become an international player. How? B taking a position as mentor to cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky, 21 years Conley’s junior. Admitting he was nervous and baffled, being an “old school” hotel man with little tech knowledge, Conley joined Airbnb feeling like an intern and mentor at the same time. The happy ending was that Conley learned a lot about technology, in trade for sharing the “wisdom of his years,” including his more well-developed emotional intelligence and ability to recognize patterns. Both valuable assets for Millennial-dominated companies, which tend to focus more on technology than on sustaining team morale.
There’s a valuable message here: To maximize the value of connecting, you need to put aside your biases about who you think is or isn’t going to be an effective contributor to your business. It’s no different outside the office, either—consider all the people you learn from without even realizing it sometimes! Keep an open mind and you will never stop growing…because after all, isn’t life just one big classroom?