Taking MBA Mentorship Seriously

Steve Martin and Michael Caine star in the 1988 film “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” Photograph by Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

In my first blog post for Bloomberg Businessweek, I argued that every MBA program has two curricula: “a formal one that lists courses in the catalog such as Econ 101, and an informal one. The latter takes place away from the classroom and isn’t required or optional. It’s invisible.” There are many ways this “invisible curriculum” can be expressed: guide, adviser, therapist, coach. For now I’d like to return to the one I started with, and the one I think remains the most important: mentors.

I am still stunned by the faith Doug McGregor, then president of Antioch College, had in me, a 22-year-old freshman just back from serving in World War II. Over a half-century later, I wonder how my life would have turned out had Doug not persuaded me to go to MIT. He also made damned sure I got in. (A side effect: an obsession with movies about mentoring such as Woody Allen and a long-dead Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam or Steve Martin partnering with Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.)

It’s no wonder that if there is one Big Thing my students remember about my course on leadership and take seriously is when I end just about every other class shouting “Stalk mentors!” Yes, mentoring goes on at B-school, but too often irregularly and through chance encounters, absent any metrics for understanding what is going on beyond merely spotting a job. Not unimportant but it’s distant from the creative spinning of two minds that marks the best mentoring relationships. A duo works best, each at the periphery of their discipline, yoked together. Enter Crick and Watson, the discoverers of DNA, walking through the double helix, an engaged couple. Picasso and Braque arguing about whose brushstroke was the most dominant.

I have strong reservations about B-schools not taking mentoring as seriously as they should. Which is why I was so happy to learn (just last week) that my own school, the Marshall School of Business, does take mentoring seriously. So I decided to call John Bertrand, the senior director for programs at USC’s Career Resource Center, to find out just what it means to take mentorship seriously and what a mentor-mentee relationship involves.

One thing it means is that all mentees who show little interest or “flake out” are dismissed from the program, Bertrand said, adding, “We’re not interested in the person who just wants to use the relationship to get a job.” No easy task. Of the 350 students in their first year, about 100 apply for the Mentor Program and 30 are accepted. Among the few who made the cut, I discovered something important. Many of them view the MBA program as transitional. They do not know or aren’t sure about their career trajectory. So it’s a grand opportunity to learn about their shortcomings and to assess the organizational cultures to which they’re most attracted.

One of the key factors in the program’s success is Bertrand himself, a Marshall School alum who is steeped in the famous Trojan Network. Because of his connections, he’s been able to recruit about 40 mentors, many of whom he’s known for years. In fact, he’s been leading this effort for the past 15 years. (Before returning to USC, he was doing the same thing for Deloitte.)

I’ve spoken to a few of his mentors and they are no amateurs or recent grads. Most of them work at the highest level of their companies and some day hope to work full time as mentors for USC’s fortunate alumni.

That’s what I call taking mentoring seriously!

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