Chris and Pete making Strongback parts

Chris and Pete making Strongback parts

Today in the United States, we seem much more focused on ourselves and less focused on helping others improve their lives. We’re much more likely, for example, to find employees working to make their bosses look good than to find bosses working to make their employees better (even though such efforts from bosses always benefit their mission and performance).

Inc. magazine’s most recent “Inc. 500” issue (September 2014) lists the fastest growing small businesses in America and includes a poll about training programs at these companies. Of those responding to the poll, 63 percent said they “devoted significant resources to leadership development” while only 35 percent said they “have an organized mentorship program.” Barely over a third provide mentoring. And these are the companies we would widely expect to have some of the brightest minds in the U.S.! How did we get here?

I believe that sometime in the 1970s we decided everyone needed a four-year degree. Thus, we deliberately steered our youth (especially young men) away from the trades. At the same time, we pushed them from our greatest mentoring programs. The unforeseen consequences of this are that we now have two generations of Americans that have likely never had a mentoring experience of any kind and don’t realize the associated benefits. This ignorance of the benefits of mentoring makes people reluctant at best or fearful at worst to assume the inborn responsibility of mentoring another person in their sphere of influence.

When my experience and previous job allowed me to travel and visit many different countries throughout the world, I did my best to study the culture at each stop. Many of these visits were repeat visits to the same regions, so in many cases my studies spanned years and, in one instance, a decade.

My primary observations centered around personal activities and work relationships. Personal activities included recreation, downtime, social activities, and, of course, the food. I must say I became a fan of a multitude of different food cultures, generally enjoying local, day-to-day food more than the highbrow, fancy feasts I was regularly a part of. (Here is a travel tip for anyone visiting a foreign land: Try their food! Don’t search out the fast food restaurants you are familiar with to ”get a taste of home.” In general, people in other countries are much better at preparing their own food than they are at cooking Western food. Imagine me, an American of Swedish descent, opening a Chinese restaurant here in the States and hoping to satisfy native-born, Chinese visitors. That isn’t going to happen! But I digress …)

I spent as much or more time observing work relationships. One thing I always noted was a strong culture of mentoring. There was a structure to mentoring, but it seemed to be in their DNA and was done as part of normal, everyday life. It was very different from what I was seeing in the U.S. When I queried people about the mentoring I saw, the first reaction was always a puzzled look followed by “What do you mean?” I asked more detailed questions about their mentoring programs, and I got a near-universal “We just do it” or “Of course, it is required to bring along the young people.”

This natural mentoring mentality seems to be lost here in the U.S. We are less likely to “just do it” to “bring along the young people” and more likely to tell the younger generation “I’m too busy to help you with that” or “Good luck with that; figure it out on your own like I did.”

This is just food for thought. I’m going to explore this further in my future blog posts, so be sure to bookmark this page and check back for future installments.