Once upon a time, mentors and coaches were assigned to employees. Workers were given a very clear road map to follow, and the definitions of success were clear (even if some of them were crazy).

This kind of defined structure scarcely exists anymore, for a few reasons. Employee tenure has consistently become shorter, which makes getting advice or help from one’s company less practical than ever. In addition, middle management has been slashed, and there are fewer folks with enough bandwidth to help. Competition is fierce, and in some cases, people worry about training their own replacement, someone the company may view as newer and less expensive. With people concerned about making themselves redundant, there’s no longer an opportunity to receive years of coaching from one boss. This shift away from internal coaching is only going to be exacerbated by further shrinkages in employee tenure, and location will matter less as more people work remotely and become more entrepreneurial (either starting their own companies or becoming freelancers). Also, mentoring seldom exists at under-resourced, fast-paced startups.

Where does this leave us? Jim Billington presciently wrote in 1997 that “the traditional mentor-protégé relationship has gone the way of the mainframe computer--while it hasn’t completely disappeared, it isn’t nearly as common as it used to be. Reengineering, flatter organizations, and a lack of gray-haired senior vice presidents have all contributed to the decline.” Now, more than fifteen years later, in the age of iPad and tablets, the mainframe has disappeared, and the mentor-protégé relationship has gone with it.

We have to acknowledge that in the Age of Entrepreneurship, the onus of personal and professional development is on the individual, not on the company. I hope that instead of fearing this new responsibility, you’ll see the many benefits it brings.

One of the most crucial improvements is that it eradicates the inherent conflict of interest that comes from getting advice from your employer. There are very few mentors within your company who are actively committed to having you consider extending your career outside of their company (especially if you are a star performer). You can understand why: there are never enough of the best resources on hand, and it would take a very selfless leader to be willing to lose a great talent.

Employees are aware that the system doesn’t work. In a 2007 interactive poll by the Human Capital Institute about the business value of coaching or mentoring programs, participants were asked, “How effective is your organization in evaluating the business impact of coaching?” Sixty-six percent of respondents answered “not effective,” 32 percent said “moderately effective,” and 0 percent replied “very effective.” It’s like the mainframe: it’s outdated technology.

Mentoring 101 for Individuals

  • Be open and welcoming to the concept of mentoring and coaching.
  • Accept whatever help is available from your company.
  • Solicit help from outside your company (ideally from trusted and knowledgeable sources).
  • Develop a robust network that helps challenge and educate you about the possibilities that exist.
  • Be willing to give advice and help to others.
  • Understand that the way to access the best opportunities is to continue to execute on your current ones. Remember that you need to be voted on to the team every day.

In the last decade, the social networking trend was born. Maintaining your own personal networks is much easier than ever before--even more so, it’s becoming mandatory, as the people who do this well gain a significant advantage. Today, it’s possible to access almost anyone, and that introduces incredible opportunities to build networks that can enable your career. This external board of advisers can offer insight, direction, and introductions. These mentors can make a tremendous impact on your career and your life.


So how do you nurture your network? 

  • Find the best mentors. Who does your current job--or the job you want--well? Read industry publications and websites and blogs to identify the best people in your field. Search Google. Find them on LinkedIn. Connect with them on a mentoring matching service. What is their magic? Create a database of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what you can learn from them.
  • Seek advice from the best people. (Don’t be shy. Reach out.) People love to mentor, help, and coach. Ask your mentors what success looks like to them. Ask them what they think has made them successful. Ask them to share their story. (People love talking about themselves.)
  • Bring value to the network. Ask what you can do to help your mentors. You may have assets they need. Don’t be a pest, but do send a relevant article or a post they might find interesting, or promote their work to your network. Social media tools make this easier than ever.
  • Ask questions. This will give you the best education.

Much has been researched and written about the value of mentors at work. The relationship produces results: a large body of research demonstrates that when looking at career mentoring in terms of objective career success, better mentoring resulted in greater compensation, greater salary growth, and more promotions. In addition, people benefit personally. Other studies have found that people were more clear about their “professional identity,” meaning their unique talents and contributions at work as well as their personal values, strengths, and weaknesses. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the existence of a formal mentoring program is now a criterion against which the “Best Companies to Work For” are judged.


Mentoring 101 for Companies

  • If you don’t have formal mentoring practices in place, implement them. Explore services like Menttium, which businesses use to provide mentors to employees.
  • Expand your view of career development beyond your company’s boundaries. For example, Bain & Company, a management consulting firm, has an excellent “externship” program in which consultants leave Bain to embark on a six-month working engagement at a company of their choice and then return to Bain. For employees, it’s a low-risk way to gain experience in another company or role that interests them; for the company, it’s a way to keep their best talent learning, challenged, tackling new experiences in new industries, and building specializations that they bring back to the company.
  • Differentiate from other employers by truly putting the employee’s career interests first.
  • Understand that the best way to keep top employees is to ensure that they keep learning, growing, and being challenged. As an employer, you should operate as though your employees were deciding every day which company to join.

Find more mentorship advice in the daily Fast Company newsletter.


Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Rebooting Work: Transform How You Work in the Age of Entrepreneurship by Maynard Webb. Copyright 2013.

--Maynard Webb is the founder of the Webb Investment Network, a seed investment firm dedicated to nurturing entrepreneurs. Webb is currently the chairman (and was formerly the CEO) of LiveOps, a cloud-based call center with a community of 20,000 agents, and a board member at both and Yahoo!. He was previously COO of eBay.

[Image: Flickr user Risto Kuulasmaa]