September 2011 | 

Leading for Good: The Surprising Rewards of Mentoring

Rewards Mentoring

Wharton’s Steinberg Conference Center is typically populated with mid-career executives staying a step ahead with the latest thinking and research from Wharton faculty. On a recent day this summer, however, it was a group of Philadelphia high school students filling the classrooms.

They were attending a leadership development event as part of their involvement in Summer Search, a program committed to providing ongoing and long-term support for low-income high school students. The organization has achieved impressive results in Philadelphia: Coming from underserved, low-income communities, 99.6% of Summer Search Philadelphia students graduate from high school and enter college. They use Summer Search experiential education programs to develop leadership skills that help them beat the odds. "We find kids who are searching for a way to change their fate," Executive Director Amanda Jefferson explained. "And then we surround those students with access to life-changing opportunities and the kind of support network that is typically reserved for their more affluent peers."

The Summer Search students were at Wharton for a day of workshops and career exploration led by a remarkable group: the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Leadership Fellows. The Fellows, who come from more than 25 countries, are part of a unique three-year master's program in which they learn from and work with diverse world leaders and topical experts to facilitate common solutions to many of the world's most pressing issues.

Fellow Jennie Oldham, who serves as community manager for civil society organizations at the WEF, led a workshop focused on issues of sustainability and the intersection of economic, social, and environmental issues. “These factors are increasingly important in global decision-making,” Oldham explained. “These kids are going to become the next generation of leaders, and these are the challenges they'll have to deal with.” Oldham spoke with her students about collaboration, challenging them to imagine the kinds of partnerships they might need to create in order to address environmental, sustainability, or social issues.

The Wharton program was a unique and rewarding experience for the students, who left the workshop with new ideas about the world and (perhaps more importantly) with new ideas about who they could become and what they could accomplish. But in giving back to the community, the Fellows recharged their own leadership practice.

Working with younger, less-experienced people, whether in a formal mentoring program or in a more informal way, is an opportunity to articulate core beliefs and reflect on what it takes to get things done (and what it means to be successful). Devising learning opportunities for others is as educational for the mentor as it is for the mentee, as Jennie Oldham learned when she challenged students to brainstorm partnerships in the very areas in which she works. It also provides exposure to diverse ideas and styles while developing leadership and management skills. The rewards of giving back, in other words, go well beyond a good feeling — they can include lasting, tangible benefits that reach well into the future.