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Leading Off
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Odysseus had one, to whom he entrusted the safeguarding of his son while the hero went on his peripatetic way. Oprah is one, and if you've ever had one, you probably know the good that they can do. Mentors, that is. Guiding other individuals' knowledge and experiences to nurture their promise through mentoring is intrinsic to leading and is also a critical element in a leader's development. Mentoring has been particularly important in helping vulnerable children through the pandemic, but its expression of care has just as much impact on professional lives. This week let's engage with practitioners, CEOs, and Homer himself—the original epic storyteller—to explore the many ways in which mentoring matters.
The leadership industry isn't cutting it
As if digitization and the growth of automation and artificial intelligence weren't reasons enough for companies to develop cutting-edge leaders, the pandemic has made the need even more critical. But research shows that just a meager percentage of executives think their leadership-development programs achieve desired results. Top companies pursue a slate of remedies that include informal actions such as mentoring. But even mentoring programs can be too formal and unlikely to achieve desired outcomes when the surrounding culture is competitive.  
That's one in four senior women who have considered stepping out of or slowing down their careers, according to LeanIn.Org and McKinsey's 2020 edition of Women in the Workplace, the largest study of the experiences of women and gender inequality in America. Gender fatigue was already an issue in advancing the status of women executives, but the pandemic and remote working have been particularly harsh on women, prompting them to cut back on work or leave the workforce at higher rates than men. This is particularly concerning given that senior women have an outsize impact on diversity, inclusion, and mentoring women of color.
photo of Carlos Lejnieks
“People, if they are honest, vulnerable, and self-reflective, know they've felt what our children feel,” says Carlos Lejnieks, head of the Newark, New Jersey, chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, whose volunteers mentor some 1,100 children affected by adversity. “At some point, they weren't Harvard graduates, they weren't career professionals. At some point, they've looked to their right and left and said, ‘I don't know if I belong here.’ There's a part of that that is an empathetic line that cuts through it all and where a mentor can have an enormous impact.” In this interview, Lejnieks explores the range of roles that mentors play, from caring for disadvantaged children to meeting the talent needs of the modern corporation.
“I absolutely do have mentors, and I would say my mentors are more important to me than ever.”
So says Elham Al Qasim, chief executive of Abu Dhabi-based software company Digital14. In an interview from McKinsey's Women in STEM video series, she shares her advice with McKinsey senior partner Rima Assi on leading through COVID-19, getting the most out of mentorship, and creating a culture where women can thrive.
Where it all started
painting of two people
Back in the day, and we mean way back, as we learn from this interview in the Atlantic, one of the earliest examples of mentoring happened very differently from the ways we think about it today. But the mentoring idea has remained pretty much the same: taking the care to infuse another with the mental recharging and sense of personal and professional nobility to strive to achieve and grow. True, it's a lot easier when a goddess takes human form to lead a mentoring session with winged words. But hey, today's leaders must do what leaders do.
Lead epically.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey's New Jersey office
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