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On the web page for the mentoring programme at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business is a warning. Students who fail to respond to mentor emails in a timely fashion, who show no interest or who “flake out” on mentors at the last minute will, it says, be removed from the programme. The message? Mentoring is taken seriously at the school.
“The mentoring programme is a critically important component of the MBA,” says John Bertrand, senior associate director for programmes and education in the school’s career resource centre. “The faculty are doing the research and driving this forward. But we also need the people that are applying this knowledge in a practical scenario.”
The school has a rigorous process for selecting students for the 12-month programme, with roughly one out of three applications accepted.
Prospective participants must show that they understand what a mentor-mentee relationship involves and demonstrate what they will get out of the programme and what they can contribute. “We are not interested in the person who just wants to use the relationship to get a job,” says Bertrand.
When it comes to finding mentors, like other schools, USC Marshall turns to alumni. However, the school made a conscious decision to target senior executives, rather than recent MBA graduates.
“All the research suggests that expertise is something that takes 10 years to develop at a minimum,” says Bertrand. “We want our mentors to pass on an enhanced ability to evaluate business problems critically and strategically – and without expertise in the field you cannot dig down through the levels of complexity that exist in an industry or a functional area.”
But while the school is careful to match students with mentors who have appropriate experience and expertise, the relationship goes beyond the exchange of advice on things technical, managerial and strategic.
“The most important thing you get out of it is a sense of priority,” says Ken
Perlman, an executive at Kotter International, the strategy consultancy. Perlman, who was a mentee while taking his MBA at USC Marshall, is now a mentor in the school’s programme.
“It’s a relationship where the pay-off may not be the end of week, the end of the month or until after graduation,” he says. “But having that person outside the programme is a huge asset.”
While guidelines are provided for how to conduct meetings between mentor and mentee, it is up to the students to set dates and discussion topics. “[Executives] are busy people,” says Bertrand. “So the students need to come up with the agenda and the questions.”
Perlman agrees. “In a mentoring relationship, once you drop the ball, it is really hard to pick that up,” he says. And, as the USC Marshall’s website points out, dropping the ball on this relationship has dire consequences – not least removal from the programme.