The single most important action that any individual business leader will ever take requires zero financial commitment and minimal time. It isn't anything flashy or new. It's mentoring, plain and simple. Do it.
There are thousands of mentoring programs in this country, yet no one has challenged business leaders to individually mentor the nine million youth who have no caring adult in their lives. That's a call for nine million of America's business leaders to step up and lead where it counts.
I'm not talking about mentoring junior employees. I'm talking about low-income inner city high school kids. They need help getting to and through college. They need help getting a skilled credential leading to employment. Help, and you will lift someone out of poverty and change the trajectory of their life. I know firsthand, from my 22 years as chairman and CEO of a foundation that works to level the playing field for underserved youth, that mentoring is a guarantee in terms of effective interventions that can and do make an impact. Young adults who are at risk for falling off-track but have a mentor are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college.
Mentoring is one of the best investments in your company that you can make, too--because your employees will follow suit. Offer opportunities for them to engage in socially-responsible mentoring programs and watch their engagement and job satisfaction, which are top predictors of high performance, productivity, and profitability, soar. Multiple researchers have shown that when organizations offer corporate social responsibility opportunities like mentoring, they are more likely to have employees who work cooperatively within their own company, have a greater sense of identity with the company they work for, are more likely to remain with the company, and perform better.
As Bob Stiller, founder of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, has said, "I've learned that people are motivated and more willing to go the extra mile to make the company successful when there's a higher good associated with it. It's no longer just a job. Work becomes meaningful and this makes us more competitive." Creating a mentoring opportunity for your employees will create a culture that not only attracts new talent but gives them a reason to stay.
And what if your company's future talent pool included candidates pulled from a more diverse pipeline, one that included more first-generation graduates who had been helped to and through college by a mentor much like yourself? This, you know, is also in your company's best long-term interest. We can't afford to let any talent lay undeveloped and untapped.
If you think you don't have time, you are wrong. Everyone has time for a text, email, or phone call and, believe it or not, that is most often what I have found a mentee needs: someone to be available and responsive. The content of your response is, of course, important but you have years of experience and a perspective that helped to get you where you are today. That will be enough for starters. When I have not known enough about an issue or a concern raised by a mentee, I did what you, too, have done in your business career and sought the guidance of others more knowledgeable than me.
I've mentored numerous students over the course of my career. The most successful mentorships have been those in which our expectations are agreed upon from the start. I help with college essays, resumes, elevator pitches, and interview techniques. My mentees are expected to communicate with me regularly about their lives and, specifically, their challenges.
Those challenges can be big, but they can also be small. Consider Isabella, a shy inner-city high school student attending a residential summer enrichment program at a private college. She only has one outfit to wear. The problem? Her jeans are always damp. She washes them in her sink at night but the coin changers for the dryers in her dorms are out of change. She has never been to a college campus and is scared to ask for help. She's at risk of dropping out of the program over something like this. But she has a mentor. She texts her mentor for help. Within minutes, the mentor locates a bodega within walking distance to the dorms, where Isabella will feel comfortable asking for change. Yes, it can be that easy to help your mentee overcome barriers.
Mentoring will lead to opportunities for your own personal growth that you can't possibly foresee, to experiences and rewards you can't anticipate. The essence of a mentorship is constancy and trust. It's a commitment to care about another person enough to be an ear to listen and a guide to advise them. It's about providing advice and stability in a world that often lacks both.
There are multiple ways to seek out a mentorship role. There are young people you will find along the way who you can naturally take under your wing. There are also programs that will match you with students. Try one of these:
- Help first-generation college students graduate and find a job with America Needs You in California, Illinois, New York, or New Jersey. You could be a one-time career coach or work with a student on Saturdays.
- Connect online once a week and meet in person once a month as a mentor with iMentor in New York City, Chicago, or the Bay Area.
- SEO Scholars in New York City or San Francisco offers the opportunity to mentor low-income 11th graders on Saturdays during the school year. You'll help them craft their first resume, explore college options, and practice interviewing skills.
- Student Sponsor Partnership pairs mentors with low-income students attending private high schools in New York City. You'll make a lasting impact by committing to meeting with your mentee 4-6 times per year for four years and keeping in touch monthly via phone or email.
If your company doesn't yet offer a corporate social responsibility program, start one and seriously consider grounding it in programs that facilitate mentoring low-income youth. You should do this, and you can. Do it for yourself, for those who look up to you to lead, and for those who will be lifted out of poverty by your hand.