One of South Africa’s tangible business challenges today is retaining scarce, “sought after” talent, especially in Professional Service Firms (PSFs). This is supported by an article, published in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), in which the authors argue that today’s PSFs are so busy making money that they have lost the art of making talent.

In the HBR article more than 30 PSFs were studied in depth, including consulting firms, accounting firms, investment banks and universities. An interesting finding was that PSFs are becoming “corporatized”, feeling the burden of increasing competition and having to grow rapidly in size and complexity. The result is that mentoring for young professionals falls wayside because experienced professionals in some PSFs are assigned as many as 20 young professionals to mentor, and relationships become contractual. It is impossible for even the most people-oriented partners to develop professionals while continuing to execute the business, managing projects, performing administrative functions and sometimes running special projects.

An evaporated mentoring culture is therefore created where young professionals begin to feel that they are merely cogs in a wheel. They feel alienated and see themselves as free agents, staying only until a choicer offer comes along. Other young professionals are leaving to maintain a work-life balance. We often hear young professionals complain that experienced professionals do not invest time in helping them to grow and develop.

I believe that in our developing country, where resources are scarce, the mentioned challenges for both experienced professionals (the mentors) and young professionals (the mentees) are here to stay.

I further believe that we tend to neglect and forget the important role that the mentee has to play in this relationship and what he/she needs to bring to the table. The responsibility, authority and commitment is not only the mentor’s task, it is a two-way street. Therefore, the important mature question that I want to challenge our new generation with is: “What can I do to reverse this damaging mentoring trend to ensure that my employer retains my talent? The short answer is: “Take initiative and revive a traditional apprentice relationship with your mentor”. The result is that if you take the action, you benefit from it – you learn from someone with a vast experience and you get it for free!

Now, it is very important to understand what it takes to build the basics of an apprentice relationship. One authentic characteristic of our South African culture is our ancestral apprentice relationships. I am sure that we can learn a lot from our grandparents’ stories and tales on how the youngsters in a tribe had to learn from their masters in their apprentice relationships. I will give you basic principles to use as a guidepost in your new journey of mentoring/apprentice revival.

Mentoring is personal.

You need to feel comfortable with your mentor in all dimensions of your life. A mentor cannot be allocated to a mentee without consent from both, and most PSF Human Resources support this. Therefore if you do not feel comfortable with your current mentor, take responsibility to find someone with whom you relate.

You need to ask the questions.

There is a misunderstanding in practice that the responsibility lies with the mentor to ask the questions. We have seen in our business that the best performers are those who ask questions and those who are not afraid to ask for feedback. Asking the right questions will result in getting the right answers to help you build your career.

Shadow your mentor.

In an authentic apprentice relationship, the apprentice observes the master’s every move, action, words and behaviour to learn from him/her how it should be done. The master seldom asks questions but through his/her actions sets the example.

Take initiative with getting together.

I have been in numerous discussions with young professionals, voicing their frustration with their mentor, who have not contacted them for a meeting. My simple answer is: “Why don’t you contact your mentor and set up the meeting?” The result is: we get what we want and the mentor admires us for our innovative action.

Reward your mentor.

We live in a consumer driven society where we expect to be served. Be different and serve your mentor for serving you! My experience is that the word “thank you” brings peace and healing, and builds a relationship. In my mentor relationships, I have given mentors their favourite bottle of wine, spoiled them for coffee at a coffee shop, wrote them a thank you note, gave them a voucher for a massage at a spa. It does not have to cost you a lot – do this once a year for your mentor and see what happens.

By applying these principles you will develop into a serving, wise young leader, mentoring your own peers on how to be a servant leader. Who knows, you might develop a new generation mentoring programme for your PSF, ensuring through your initiative that your employer retains your talent and also getting the best mentoring service because you developed it.

Valuable resources:

Delong, TJ, Gambaro, JJ & Lees, RJ (2008). Why mentoring matters in a Hypercompetitive world. In Harvard Business Review (Volume 86/1). USA: HBR.

Cohen, N (1999). The manager’s pocket guide to Effective Mentoring. USA: HRD Press.

Adel du Plessis CA(SA), is an Executive Image Consultant, and completed a Masters Degree in Accounting Education with a specific focus on assessment.  For the last 5 years Adel has worked with the emerging generation market and trains, coaches, mentors and consults in Leadership Image, Business Skills and Life Skills.