The magazine for Western Washington University

We're all mentors now

Online only: Mentoring is a survival skill in a bad economy.

Story by Mary Lane Gallagher

Print this story
Joseph Garcia, associate dean of the College of Business and Economics, is director of the Karen W. Morse Institute for Leadership at WWU. | Photo by Mary Lane Gallagher

It may seem like the smartest workers in an uncertain economy are the self-contained, independent types who look out for themselves first.

But Joe Garcia, associate dean of Western’s College of Business and Economics, would tell you it’s the people who have cultivated a network of relationships – those who have mentors to turn to – who are the most valuable in the long run.

In tough times, Garcia says, mentoring can feel like crisis management. Layoffs leave behind people scrambling to cover the skills of their former co-workers. That’s when many employees reach out to potential mentors, hoping for golden nuggets of advice to get them through that next project.

But good mentoring helps people get much farther than the next deadline, or even the next job, Garcia says. Mentors who share their hard-earned wisdom can help people see where their whole lives are headed.

“It’s about helping people discover how good they can be,” Garcia says.

Garcia should know. Last year he was honored for his mentoring skills by the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society for Management Educators. A member of the editorial board of The Business Journal of Hispanic Research, Garcia is also the Bowman Distinguished Professor in Leadership and director of the new Karen W. Morse Institute for Leadership at Western.

Mentoring is also built into the curriculum at CBE, where Garcia serves as director of Center for Excellence in Management Education. Students have “virtual mentors” in the business community with whom they discuss concepts they learn in the classroom, Garcia says.

Typically, the work of building and maintaining a mentoring relationship isn’t paid work, but it’s vital, Garcia says. The best mentoring relationships give people a chance to see how their skills, goals and interests fit into the big picture.

“Organizations are successful not because people are doing their job,” he says, “but because people doing their job understand how their job connects to the larger enterprise.”

Garcia offers a few tips for would-be mentors and protégés. Good mentors, he says:

  • Don’t solve their protégé’s problems, but “encourage them to reassess their perception that their obstacles are insurmountable.”
  • Ask probing questions to help protégés figure out what their true passion is. Listening and showing true interest is much more valuable than lecturing.
  • Don’t have to be the boss. Sometimes members of the same team can mentor each other.
  • Protégés have some responsibility, too, Garcia says. Among them:

  • Don’t miss an important opportunity amid the flood of relief that comes with completing a big project. Seek meaningful feedback. What could you have done better, and what are the resources you need in order to improve your skills?
  • If you’re not in a professional organization, join one. They’re great resources for finding people with experience and insights. Retirees, freed from the political constraints of their previous employment, can also be tremendously helpful. And don’t forget to seek out former classmates in your industry.
  • Ask big-picture questions. You don’t need a mentor to teach you how to run a spreadsheet program. Instead, ask about what budgetary challenges your mentor has tackled, and how. Was there a book, a class or other resource that helped?
  • Understand professional discretion. Keep the relationship friendly but professional by meeting at the office or nearby public places. Never try to use the relationship to get ahead. And if the chemistry isn’t there, don’t force it.