In the pits.
Mentoring is making a comeback in business circles. The results, however, are uneven. For thousands of years, mentors transformed protégés (butchers, bankers and candlestick makers) into professionals. In the nineteenth century, a “modern” view of business reduced mentoring to a pit stop. And therein lies the problem… and the opportunity for people of faith.
For thousands of years, the Judeo-Christian tradition saw mentors as a key to meaningful and ethical work. All work was a calling by God. Therefore, work was “saying something” about God and the world he made. It was “professing” that a code exists – what life ought to be, is, can and will be. Learning the code required walking alongside a mentor who was fluent in the language of “ought, is, can and will.”
This view of work had faded a bit toward the end of the Middle Ages. Martin Luther however rejuvenated it in 1521, reminding us that all work is holy work. John, Dick and Heinrich’s business was no less God’s work than the work of the priest.
Such an elevated view of work went into eclipse with the rise of a middle class in the nineteenth century. Factories needed “employees” – taken from the French term employé meaning “to buy and hire” people to occupy “specific tasks.” Workers became cogs in a wheel instead of colleagues – hired for production, not profession. It’s no coincidence that during this era American colleges adopted the German model of education and became de facto factories that “trained children to be employees and consumers,” writes John Taylor Gatto.1 Harvard College led the way, according to former Dean Harry R. Lewis, making good grades more important than becoming a good person.2 In this new German model of universities, mentoring became meaningless.
With work stripped of mentors and meaning, business students began to describe their labors as a career instead of a calling. Career comes from the French carriere meaning “racecourse” or “to move headlong at high speed.” Business was now all about professional advancement – except that “profession” also meant something entirely new.
“Profession is an old word, but it took on new meanings when it was disconnected from the idea of a ‘calling’ and came to express the new conception of a career,” writes Robert Bellah.3 Those who worked at the highest speed in highly skilled occupations were highly sought after (and respected and paid) as “professionals.” But the fast pace reduced mentoring to a pit stop. Mentoring was about imparting skills rather than instilling a sense of the sacred. The aim was to get back on the racecourse as fast as possible.
Pit stop mentoring might explain why students in business schools view “ethical behavior as a luxury,” writes Harvard professor Howard Gardner. Fifty-six percent of MBA students in the United States admit to cheating – the highest rate of dishonesty among graduate student groups.4 In a recent survey, only two students picked “Ethics” when eight hundred were asked: “Please select up to 3 factors that make your top ranked company appealing to you.”5 Even though young professionals declare “a desire to do good work,” most feel “that they had to succeed by whatever means. When they had made their mark, they told us, they would then become exemplary workers.”6
The point of a pit stop is to get in and out as fast as possible. Mentoring only makes sense inside of a profession, notes Gardner. But he’s referring to “profession” in the ancient sense of the word.
Strictly speaking, business is not – nor has it ever been – a profession. Professions develop over long periods of time and gradually establish a set of control mechanisms and sanctions for those who violate the code. [M]entoring is an understood component of regulated professions. Business lacks this model; you don’t need a license to practice. The only requirements are to make money and not run afoul of the law.7
There’s an old saying that behavior is more caught than taught. Mentoring makes sense when work is a calling rather than a career, performed with colleagues rather than employees and the focus is profession as much as production. In this way, mentoring instills a code for our entire life – as it ought to be, is, can and will be – including work. When 75% of Americans suspect wrongdoing is widespread in Corporate America, this might be a good opportunity to reintroduce the ancient Judeo-Christian code that elevated work as an ethical calling and profession.8 Otherwise mentoring is nothing more than a pit stop.
1 John Taylor Gatto, “Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why.” Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History of American Education. He was a participant in the Harper’s Magazine forum “School on a Hill,” which appeared in the September 2003 issue.
2 C.f. Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, (New York: Perseus, 2006)
3 Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley; University of California, 1996), pp. 119-120
4 This is according to a recent Duke University study cited by Howard Gardner, “The Ethical Mind,” Harvard Business Review, March 2007.
5 Results of a 2005 study by analysts at Wetfeet (www.wetfeet.com)
6 Howard Gardner, “The Ethical Mind,” Harvard Business Review, March 2007.