Who remembers this image of eighteen-year-old Bill Clinton as a “senator” at a Boys Nation assembly in 1963 eagerly shaking the hand of President John F. Kennedy?

Along similar lines last month in the little 19th-century village of Lindau at a corner of Switzerland and Germany, the Council and the Foundation for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings gathered some 460 young economists from over 80 countries to rub elbows for three days with Nobel laureates in the economic sciences.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the meetings with the keynote address. Literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa spoke one evening in the Lindau City Theater. But the most inspiring evocation was the active engagement of 17 of the 37 living laureates in economics who showed up to give generously of their time, with public talks, and by privately engaging with and mentoring the students. (Watch the lectures of the 5th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in the Lindau Mediatheque.)

Paying it forward

Common to every autobiography published of the Nobel laureates across all six prize categories is their acknowledgement of the key role that great mentors have played in helping them on their journey to excellence.

In the business world, the key role played by mentors has traditionally been less venerated, though this has changed in recent years.

Whenever I am asked what is the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one, mentoring comes to mind….Mentoring was very important for me personally. For example, Sir Freddie Laker gave me invaluable advice and guidance as we set up Virgin Atlantic, while my mum has been a mentor throughout my life.” (Richard Branson)

As well as for being a perfectionist with a thorny side, Steve Jobs is famous for having had great mentors who played key roles in helping him. And this month Apple CEO Tim Cook in an interview with Charlie Rose said he thinks that the one thing that gets left out of everything that’s been written about Jobs is his role as a mentor himself.

Jobs was one of the best mentors in the world…. He was a great teacher…. He would go out of his way to make sure that people understood what he was trying to teach them….He cared about mentorship innately.

The most important driver of workplace engagement

Successful companies, both large and small, are using mentoring more and more to tackle complex human resource challenges, including onboarding, leadership development, and diversity initiatives, and more notably for increasing retention and lifting engagement and performance.

Thomas Friedman’s article in the NY Times this month points to brand new Gallup poll research about what produces “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track.

Graduates who told Gallup that they had a professor or professors “who cared about them as a person — or had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams and/or had an internship where they applied what they were learning — were twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being,” said Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup’s education division. “We found no difference in terms of type of institution you went to — public, private, selective or not — in long-term outcomes. How you got your college education mattered most.”

This is what psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have been saying for decades with their self-determination theory (SDT), which looks at how we’re motivated by the fulfillment of three basic psychological needs: for autonomy, competency, and relatedness. This means that while we’re innately driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment, in order to actualize our inherent potential we need nurturing and continuous sustenance from the social environment. It’s through our relationships and interactions with others, our social environment, that we can either foster or thwart well-being and personal growth. (For a more in-depth understanding of SDT and what motivates us, read Deci’s book, Why We Do What We Do.)

What makes it game-changing?

Here’s one long list of resources on mentoring in book, periodical and video formats for all industries and settings.

We’ve learned that the one essential cornerstone is mutual learning, respect, trust, and compassion. Here are a couple of our favorite quotes in the words of famously successful mentors and mentees that help describe the character of this very special relationship.

This summer to me was beauty — beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life. I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems…. For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me that I hope to fulfill in your great spirit. (Leonard Bernstein in a letter to one of his big heroes and mentors, Serge Loussevitzky)

What’s very important to me has been the mentoring of young people…. As a mentor, they’re like your kids…. One of the keys to mentorship: Are you willing to invest yourself in people and really care about them and their careers and success? And to challenge them? To put things in front of them that they really have to reach, to get to? If you can give somebody the experience of really working right at their potential, of really doing something that tests them and extends their limits, and let them feel what it’s like to succeed at that level. Then you’ve done it. Then they know what it feels like. They know what they’re capable of and they’re willing to challenge themselves in future…. You challenge different people in different ways. There’s the whole issue of how much to direct people. It’s a delicate balance. (Robert Lefkowitz, Nobel laureate in Chemistry 2012 with Brian Kobilka)

I learned a lot about leadership from my mentor, Herb Kelleher. When I was a young secretary, we had a mailer that had to get out. Everything that could go wrong with it went wrong….It was 8 pm at night and we had to start all over. Herb sat right there with me until 4 am, on the floor, licking envelopes and putting stamps on them, because we didn’t have a postage machine….He could have thought it was my fault that all had gone wrong, but he didn’t. He just jumped right in there with me. That was a valuable lesson for me about leading and motivating people. (Colleen Barrett, former President, Southwest Airlines)

If some form of mentor relationship isn’t a part of your life, work, and organization, begin it now.