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Corporate mentoring programs are a charade. The intent behind them is good, but like everything the professionals get a hold of, they turn it into an incredibly complex and counterproductive routine. I suspect the reason these programs exist is so HR can beat you up and have something they can brag about. The moment someone says “mentor” or “mentee,” I get waves of nausea.
My problem is this: As a manager you are supposed to be a resource. The principal job of somebody in management is to be a resource to the people who work for you. That means setting direction for them. It means kicking their asses if they lag. But the most important thing is to teach them how to deal with increasingly complex assignments, by letting them do the work and watching them. There is also role-modeling, critiquing, and on and on, all ending in —ing. All that is teaching. Some stuff in companies can be made routine and machine-like. But teaching? You routinize it, you screw it up.
At Intel (INTC), we had a job called technical assistants, or TAs, who would work with senior executives. I had good experiences with my TAs because I would look for people who could teach me about some element I needed. In the 1980s I had a marketing manager named Dennis Carter. I probably learned more from him than anyone in my career. He is a genius. He taught me what brands are. I had no idea—I thought a brand was the name on the box. He showed me the connection of brands to strategies. Dennis went on to be chief marketing officer. He was the person responsible for the Pentium name, “Intel Inside,”—he came up with all my good ideas.
Almost 10 years later, the Internet became a factor. My knowledge of the Internet was almost nonexistent. Sean Maloney was a network engineer who was comfortable with bandwidth and communications. He worked with me for two years, and eventually became executive vice-president. In the late 1990s, my TA was an Internet applications guy, Mike Hoefflinger. I had him take me to selected Internet companies so I could learn—Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN), all the e-commerce companies. He set up the visits and brought me in, and on the way home he would explain what I’d heard. What the TAs got from me was seasoning. So I pushed a little. I beat them mercilessly—verbally, of course. The point wasn’t to teach them their job, but to teach them … I want to say manners. I don’t mean table manners, but how to handle hurdles, explosions, any old mess. It must have done some good. Paul Otellini became CEO of Intel. Renée James became senior VP for software.
Did I mentor them? They taught me as much as I taught them. So who is the mentor and who is the mentee? Is “mentee” a real word? I hate it.