Mentoring: The Vital 20 Percent in Individual Learning and Change
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Mentoring: The Vital 20 Percent in Individual Learning and Change

On December 16, 1675, scientists of the Royal Society gathered to hear Isaac Newton’s new latest theory on the properties of light. Robert Hooke, the Society’s Curator of Experiments was in the audience and proclaimed that the essence of Newton’s paper was already captured in Hooke’s published book and that Newton would benefit from additional experiments to build upon Hooke’s previously published conclusions. As a result, Hooke and Newton became engaged in a long correspondence and one of most significant collaborations in the history of science.

After drawing upon earlier experiments from Hooke and Rene Descartes, Newton arrived at a new hypothesis on the refraction of light particles. Newton’s discoveries were groundbreaking and surpassed Hooke’s own accomplishments. As a result, Hooke became appreciative and complementary of Newton’s new contributions. In return, Newton acknowledged the value of their scientific discussions that came from the pioneering work of Descartes and Hooke. To show his gratitude, Newton stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”(1)

While this story is a great metaphor for the advancement of scientific discovery, this story also reminds me of the importance of mentoring.

Over 30 years ago, Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger surveyed nearly 200 executives and asked them to report how they learned, grew, and changed over the course of their careers. What the researchers learned from this study became known as the 70-20-10 rule and can be a classic guideline for the ratio of activities to develop leaders.(2)

  • 70% Challenging work assignments
  • 20% Developmental relationships
  • 10% Formal coursework and training

Mentoring is one of the developmental relationships that helps people learn and succeed in their careers. People often seek out a mentor for advice and wisdom. Yet, a mentor’s ability to teach and influence others is greater when the emerging leader can study and work closely with their mentor while also observing the mentor’s behavior and receiving feedback. Thus, similar to the estimate that 90% of communication is non-verbal, most of mentoring is “caught not taught”.(3)

While mentoring activities may only represent 20% of a person’s overall development in their career, this ratio can largely influence on how the person fulfills the larger 70% of development activities that come from work assignments. For example, mentors see and believe in the potential of the people they mentor. Also, mentors can use their influence to open doors of opportunity so that the people they mentor can have new (and often uncomfortable) work assignments to help the people stretch and grow in their careers. Finally, effective mentors coach and support people through these new and uncomfortable assignments to help them overcome the challenges and become a more capable leader from the experience.

In closing, if you serve in the role of a mentor, don’t underestimate the lasting imprint you can have on the people who look to you as a role model. Conversely, if you are looking for ways to grow and advance in your career, look beyond the traditional 10% developmental activities found in formal classroom training opportunities. Find ways to leverage the 20% ratio by building a formal or informal mentoring relationship with others who can help you stretch and grow.

Mentoring is a win/win activity because both parties find purpose and receive rewards. Just as Newton and Hooke demonstrated in their collaboration and correspondence as scientists, all progress is built on the triumphs of others. Hence, we all succeed when we recognize how the contributions of others have contributed to our own achievements and we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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