Mentor: (noun) 1. A wise loyal adviser; 2. A teacher or coach.
The distinguishing traits of a mentor have not changed much since the character by that name first appeared in Greek mythology as a friend and counselor to Odysseus and his son, Telemachus.
In banking, the mentoring process is alive and well, functioning as an important part of career advancement, with executives scouring the ranks for talent and helping nurture those who succeed them.
According to Dr. Charles Burden, professor of management and organizational behavior at Georgia State University, mentoring is quite common across industries."It's the older sage passing along the institutional history that the young person simply is not privy to," he said. It's a way of "ensuring some sort of succession, giving someone the wisdom of your experience."
Some banks formally structure mentor programs, promoting relationships in which the older and wiser lend advice and assistance to up-and-comers. But traditionally, mentor relationships blossom by chance, forged through the discovery of certain affinities-such as a shared alma mater or favorite hobby.
Many top-ranking executives credit at least a portion of their success to the lessons learned and insight gained from someone they identified as a mentor.
Roy A. Henderson, the 54-year-old vice chairman of the trust and private financial services group for $29 billion-asset Unionbancal Corp., found his mentor at SeaFirst National Bank, which is now part of BankAmerica Corp. SeaFirst president Michael Berry gave Mr. Henderson lots of advice and encouragement-and an occasional prodding-as Mr. Henderson rose through the ranks to become vice chairman of the Seattle-based bank.
"Two things I learned," recalls Mr. Henderson. "One-tell it like it is no matter how painful. And the other is, don't be afraid to act on your instinct. In a big company that is a good lesson. Often at the top, lots of people will be telling you things are good. But you should go on your knowledge and experience and gut instinct."
Edward E. Crutchfield, chairman and chief executive of Charlotte, N.C.- based First Union Corp., found his role model in former First Union chairman C.C. Cameron.
"I'm still benefiting from his advice every day," said Mr. Crutchfield. Mr. Cameron always took an interest in the human side of the business and taught Mr. Crutchfield to treat people with warmth and care even in tough situations, Mr. Crutchfield said. "He used to remind me to put a little sugar on it," Mr. Crutchfield recalled.
James H. Blanchard, chairman and chief executive of $8 billion-asset Synovus Financial Corp., is another example. Mr. Blanchard's first and most significant mentor was his father, who he ultimately succeeded as president of Columbus Bank and Trust, Synovus' principal bank.
"He taught me many things about leadership, treating people right, and community service," said Mr. Blanchard, who worked as a lawyer until taking on the presidency of the bank in 1971 at the age of 29, following his father's death.
Mr. Blanchard said he also found a mentor in William Curry, a longtime Georgia banker who served as interim president of Columbus Bank and Trust after the senior Blanchard died.
Mr. Curry "literally shaped my banking philosophy," said Mr. Blanchard. Along with stressing sound lending tactics, Mr. Curry taught his protege how to attain profitability in ways that satisfied the many constituencies of a bank.
According to Dr. Burden of Georgia State, mentoring relationships are generally positive for both the company and the individual. As the "old boy network" increasingly opens up to women and minorities, formal corporate mentoring programs work to diversify as well as strengthen the top ranks.
But some see forced mentoring as an unfair imposition. They hesitate to embrace the concept, preferring an "up-by-the-bootstraps" philosophy.
"Mentoring on the whole is positive," said Dr. Burden. It often involves caring for the person you're mentoring and developing a bond. But you have to be careful. Some men don't like those words. They think it is a feminizing of management. I prefer to call it humanizing. They prefer to call it a specialized training program."