Famous people often credit mentors with helping them succeed. For Oprah Winfrey, it was Mrs. Duncan, her fourth grade teacher. For Bill Clinton, it was his grandmother. For Mark Zuckerberg, it was Steve Jobs. For Warren Buffett, it was Benjamin Graham, another great investor and Buffet’s university professor.
The original mentor was a character in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. When Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, went to fight in the Trojan War, he entrusted the care and teaching of his son, Telemachus, to Mentor. Since the days of ancient Greece, the role of a mentor has been to impart spiritual, social, and personal values to the young. For families, sharing knowledge with the next generation is just as important now as it was centuries ago.
The terms “coach” and “mentor” are often used interchangeably, but the two have different responsibilities. Coaching is about improving performance in a specific area by developing certain skills. It’s short-term and focused. Mentoring helps someone prepare to take on new responsibilities, work in a new environment, or build confidence to continue to learn and grow. Mentoring looks further down the road. There’s a place for both coaching and mentoring in families.
Noted family advisor James E. Hughes brings the concepts close to the context of family in his writings on the subject. “Mentoring is about asking questions not about giving answers. A mentor’s questions should guide us to the deepest possible learning about ourselves. Successful mentoring is a dialogue where both parties learn something essential.” This suggests a genuine partnership is formed. When looking for a mentor, it’s smart to look within your family.
Families are awash in potential mentors. Parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, or siblings can emerge at different times as the ideal wise counselor or teacher to guide a family member through an important phase. A mentor’s role is crucial, but it isn’t meant to be a permanent crutch. When the time is right, the mentee steps up to the new challenge.
Grandparents often have a head start on the job. They are eager to spend time with their grandchildren, and the younger set is inclined to listen. Mentoring between them can be as simple as offering to help with homework. Sharing family stories of earlier times can bring a routine history lesson to life in a new way.
If investing is a favorite topic, talking about companies and how stocks work can build money skills better than just handing over a check on every birthday. Grandkids might be surprised to know that their wise grandparents probably made a few bad calls along the way. There's nothing like the voice of experience.
Elders can continue to be mentors long after the basic lessons are mastered. The value of sound advice has no statute of limitations. Given the twists and turns and unpredictability of today’s careers, hearing loving but firm words of counsel is valuable to family members of any age.
Our millennial generation is ready and eager to learn. Despite growing up with more connectivity than ever, today’s generation between the ages of 18 and 33 is more isolated than the preceding one. Social networking platforms encourage quantity over quality where success, self-image, and relationships are concerned. It’s all too easy to see life as a picture of happiness, even if the image is false. It takes more than editing one’s profile page to make genuine progress.
If the members of the next generation need more advice and support as they make the transition to full independence, family members can be ideal resources. What makes the mentoring relationship so well suited to a family is that it’s a process of mutual sharing. The mentor and the mentee learn together. And because members of the family have different needs at different times, the natural web of family is a fertile ground for both becoming a wise counselor and finding one.
Families provide many benefits. They offer love, sympathy, teaching and learning. Financial advice is a gift that money alone can’t buy. Save for a rainy day. A penny saved is a penny earned. The early bird catches the worm. Often it’s family members who pass on such pearls of wisdom. Translated into financial lessons, these “intergenerational communications” help build habits that defer gratification, build capital, encourage hard work, and instill a sense of appreciation for what has been earned and learned.
Trusted advice from a family mentor is a gift that money can’t buy. Those are always the best kind.
Excerpted from the book, “The Business of Family” published in 2015 by Linda Davis Taylor.