The Regenerative Approach to Mentoring in Business

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Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

In 1999, I designed a mentoring program for Creative Grandparenting, a new Delaware nonprofit organization. This program was so successful that, with non-partisan support, its funding was made a line-item allocation in the Delaware state budget. Within a year, it was adopted by 16 other states, and shortly after it received a National Governors’ Award for innovation. Originally for teens, it was expanded into adult programs in many businesses. The principles are the same, no matter the age of persons in mentoring roles.

Founding Background

Creative Grandparenting was the brainchild of Robert Casey, a DuPont executive, who was involved in a developmental education program that I designed for his business and led for ten years. He knew first-hand how profound the experience had been for him and all of his leaders and employees, and he wanted to apply the same principles to the design of Creative Grandparenting’s mentoring program. I accepted his invitation to design the curriculum and the mentor development process, and I personally guided the program’s first out-of-state launch in California, where it was adopted and overseen by the state’s Department of Human Services.

We started by enlisting reforming gang members in Fullerton to mentor youth at risk of recruitment into gangs who were in turn mentored by business leaders supporting the work in their community, and eventually we expanded this work throughout the state. The program is now widely recognized for its transformational outcomes and the large numbers of youth and mentors it touched. Unfortunately, the 2016 election led to its loss of funding in most states, following votes in legislatures along political battle lines, and the national program died within a year, as did many other worthy programs serving children, youth, and young adults.

This program was documented and evaluated over the course of its existence in terms of the numbers of children with missing, jailed, or deceased parents whose lives were significantly improved by mentoring from developmentally engaged adults. Its work was so successful that in California and many other states it remained in place for decades, spanning the terms of multiple governors from both parties.

The follow up with the mentors made clear how much effect it had on the mentors, including that they took it into their personal and business lives and created self reported business results, although the program did not track this outcome. This paper will speak to the application in business and youth settings, beginning with a brief description of the program’s key foundational aspects.

Four Worldviews that Shape Mentoring Programs

Before launching the DuPont approach to human development, we observed a range of mentoring programs offered by educators and consultants for adults and youth. This enabled us to articulate four clearly distinct worldviews that shape these programs by determining their different approaches and the outcomes they pursue. We were offering the top level on this chart, the regenerative programming, and we wanted the differences from these other programs to be obvious.

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The causal world view, which is in many ways a Freudian or classical psychology view of human nature, is based on the idea that there are underlying flaws in people that must be corrected if they are to succeed in life. These flaws arise from weakness of character or shortfalls in skill. Correcting them requires identifying the causes behind problems, understanding them, and then solving them (adding motivation, skills, and/or resources to a person) to produce outcomes in conformance with status quo ways of knowing and evaluation.

Causal world mentors usually present themselves as or are perceived to be experts. They push mentees to their limit, often in outdoor settings. They sometimes seek to understand the mentee’s history and upbringing, but more often they follow a generic methodology, putting the mentee through a challenging ordeal that will result in some kind of breakthrough and then building a friendship with them which, by itself, is expected to heal the deeper ailment. Programs based on the causal worldview frequently lack sound guidelines and programmatic support. They are seldom used in business, but they are not altogether unheard of, either. When designing the Creative Grandparenting program, I could find little documentation of their effects and outcomes.

The gaps world view emerges from the notion that people are missing knowledge and experience and that emulating someone who has walked the desired path can fill those gaps. Gap worldview mentors often provide feedback to their inexperienced mentees, reflecting for them on their approaches to situations and thereby demonstrating what a more knowledgeable and successful person would do in their place to achieve their aspirations. This form of mentorship is firmly rooted in providing guidance based on the mentor’s personal experience. The overarching idea is to clearly demonstrate what a professional discipline or role calls for, to identify the mentee’s shortfalls, and to help them fill their gaps. The mentor may set themself up as a role model or, alternately, serve as a curator, selecting skills, knowledge, and methods for character development, and offering them to the mentee in structured or unstructured experiences (e.g. scheduled instruction sessions or seemingly casual, off-hand advice. The goal is simply to get the mentee on track toward success in their career or personal life.

One particularly toxic set of practices common to the gaps worldview are the behavior modification approaches that emerged from behavioral psychologists’ studies of rats in laboratories. (I have written extensively on the history and toxic effects of practices based on behavioral psychology, most recently in my book, No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work, which includes a story from the Creative Grandparenting mentoring program in its epilogue.)

The purpose worldview is based on the idea, developed by thinkers who include Alfred Adler and Pierre de Chardin, that people are often unsure or confused about what they want, uncertain of their goals and purposes, and/or unable to make good choices about how to achieve them. The remedy for this condition is training in goal setting and decision making, which leads to better choices, higher levels of achievement, and ultimately to a fully realized life purpose. Mentors trained in this view seek to help mentees find their life purposes, set career goals, and make plans to achieve them. Menttium — a San Francisco-based program that enlists experienced executives across companies to support younger aspirants, particularly women — is an example of mentorship based on this philosophy.

Programs based on the purpose worldview often use of typologies to define categories of people, a practice that arose from the Human Potential Movement and has proven in many studies to be an abstract and artificial approach with disappointing results. (Todd Rose’s The End of Average offers a good overview of this practice.)

The regenerative worldview is characterized by developmental practices. Rather than solving problems, filling gaps, building skills, or articulating goals and purposes, its organizing concept is to provide individuals with the resources required for understanding and expressing their unique essences. In development programs, goals emerge if and when a person needs them in order to engage more fully in essence expression. Mentors work on causes or restraints only within the context of what is currently limiting essence realization. They do not dig into these causes; instead they put the power of their own developing personalities (our learned and socialized selves) to work in support of their mentees’ essence expression. That is, the mentoring process is led by the mentee’s essence, rather than the mentor’s personality. Essence becomes the primary organizing concept in every situation and with each entity involved.

Regenerative Mentoring

There are three core characteristics that differentiate mentoring based on the regenerative worldview. The first is support for essence expression. Essence, innate to a person and not related to the socialization process by which personality is formed, is what a person is, what would cause them to no longer be themselves if it were taken away or lost. In the science of living systems and within indigenous cultures, every living thing is understood to be unique, to be essentially itself. No living entity is a duplicate; each is exactly itself, one of one.

The second characteristic is a commitment to the evolution of the mentee’s inner capacities, rather than to transmitting or filling them up with professional methods and practices. The particular capacities to be developed are based on the direction the mentee is pursuing. The mentor’s role is to resource improvements in the mentee’s thinking, discernment, and self-mastery, enabling them to play a beneficial role in the system that they are seeking to affect. The mentee is supported as a change agent in their own life and the world in which they take action.

The core human capacities to be developed through regenerative mentoring are internal locus of control, external considering, and personal agency. Internal locus of control is accepting full responsibility for one’s actions and their effects on self and others, rather than blaming others and feeling victimized. Scope of considering is the extent to which we take others into account in our decision making and when we take action. Are we thinking mostly or only about ourselves or are we acting with compassion and concern for the welfare of others? As personal agency develops, we transition from reliance on external sources of authority and influence to trust in our own higher purposes and aims. These three core capacities are a foundation for the development of additional capacities and capabilities specific to the mentee’s chosen professional and personal aspirations. (For more about them and the toxic practices that undermine them, check out my book, The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, and Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes and the Corporate Book Club at Carol Sanford.com.)

Development of the core human capacities is consistent with the third characteristic of regenerative development, engagement in the protégés self-directed, experience-based learning as a resource rather than an authoritative expert. The mentor ceases to see themself as a transmitter of knowledge or skill, and instead takes on the role of resource for a person engaged in building the capability to make their own assessments of what is factual, true, or morally correct. The mentor disappears as the protégé turns toward themself as the source of wisdom, learning, and growth. The mentor’s only job is to assist with the protégé with their development of the capability to use critical thinking skills well and to test offered ideas before adopting them.

Regenerative mentors encourage protégés to question authority and never to borrow established practices without examining and testing them. In fact, the mentor’s role becomes that of Socratic questioner, bringing self-discovered wisdom into the experience and practice of the mentee through a process of inquiry.

Regenerative resourcing was the mode of leadership that Robert Casey experienced at DuPont, where it replaced traditional supervisor roles, and that together we embedded in the Creative Grandparenting program, as foundational to the mentor’s role. Adult and young adult mentors reported this as having redirected how they engaged others in their lives including employees, children in their family and in volunteer roles they played elsewhere.

Summary

Becoming discerning about our worldview, the design of mentoring programs, and the ways mentoring is conducted is one of a business leader’s most important responsibilities. Otherwise, they can fail the challenge to resist toxic business practices and find themselves projecting their own ideas at the expense of others’, attempting to shape people in their own images, and correcting behaviors based on misguided interpretation of causes and values. When we act based on the regenerative worldview, we remove ourselves from the center or from an elevated position in our mentee’s experience and place them in the lead, enabling them to develop the capacities and capabilities essential to their personal success and the success of a regenerative businesses.

For more ideas on how worldviews affect our way of leading and developing people, check out my five best-selling, multi-award winning books at www.carolsanford.com and the Business Second Opinion podcast.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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