March 2012 | Senior Leadership
In a recent interview, outgoing IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano spoke about the need for mentoring, and for creating a culture that is committed to developing leadership in its ranks. He described to Wharton management professor Mike Useem the mentoring he’s received throughout his career, and his work with his successor, Ginni Rometty.
“You have to be able to want to be mentored. It starts with that,” notes Palmisano. “But what happens as you become successful is you forget the ingredient of being a good mentee, which is listening.” He stresses that the need for mentoring doesn’t stop once you reach a certain level in your career. It may actually increase. And since the willingness to be mentored can also create a “mentoring culture” that benefits everyone in the organization, it makes sense to seek opportunities to do so.
Useem notes, “Great leaders solicit feedback from others, and, as Sam Palmisano said, they listen. They’re willing to get advice on what they’re doing well and on what they need to improve on.” But, as he points out to participants in Becoming a Leader of Leaders: Pathways for Success, finding a mentor or coach, especially as you move higher up the ranks, is not always easy. “Palmisano’s experience at IBM isn’t necessarily the norm among all large companies. IBM has made a concerted effort to grow leadership internally, and it looks like it has paid off well with the recent CEO succession. However not every organization has a culture that supports mentors and mentees.”
In The Leadership Journey, Faculty Director Useem and Learning Director Greg Shea ask participants on the first night of the program to describe their greatest career challenge. “Inevitably, several say that they are working to pass on their skill set. They want to know how to do it right, to be a mentor,” says Useem. “One way the program addresses this need is by example: we travel to a Civil War battlefield to learn what happens when there should have been mentoring prior to the battle. Gettysburg was the scene of a pivotal loss for the Confederacy. One of their premier commanders, Stonewall Jackson, had been killed less than two months earlier during the Battle of Chancellorsville. He was well known to be strategic and decisive, but he also devoted little time to reviewing his plans with his officers or in otherwise developing their leadership. When one of General Jackson’s subordinates was called to fill his shoes during the Gettysburg engagement, the newly promoted officer arguably was not as prepared as he should have been and consequently did not command as effectively as he might have had he had stronger mentoring.”
One of the lessons of Gettysburg is the importance of creating “troop strength,” building leadership in others. This lesson is in fact one of the 15 “mission-critical” principles in Useem’s latest book, The Leader’s Checklist. He explains, “As Sam Palmisano found out, you develop leadership both by improving yourself and your team. When you’re invested in improving your own leadership, you provide opportunities for other leaders to develop. It’s very much a two-way street. By mentoring and being open to being mentored, you increase the power of your organization.”
Participants in The Leadership Journey have the opportunity to be “mentored” by a number of leaders in action. Useem notes, “You learn about yourself by examining others at moments of leadership. In the program we also focus on individuals like Antarctica explorer Ernest Shackleton and King Henry V of England, whose actions provide memorable lessons for one’s own leadership. Greg Shea and I are seeking to help create what Sam Palmisano got — and gave — at IBM, those instructive moments when you can learn much from others. Mentoring is about passing on wisdom tangibly, and giving guidance directly.”
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