According to the article “Winning the race for talent in emerging markets” – by Douglas A. Ready, Linda A. Hill, and Jay A. Conger (HBR), developing world countries have a large shortage of adequately experienced people from lower to middle management upwards. Often I hear people in these contexts describe a ‘skills shortage’, but I like to refer to it as a ‘gravitas shortage’.

Gravitas (from Latin) is a quality of substance or depth of personality.

If you don’t like ‘gravitas’ perhaps ‘depth’ is a suitable alternative for you? Either way, what we lack is not more education (although most business educators are making a lot of money convincing you otherwise). We lack people who have the necessary life and business experience to take on the responsibilities that you find as you move higher up our organisational structures. I’m not sure there are many people who’d be prepared to suggest, on record, that the 25 year old at the top of last year’s MBA class has the required gravitas to lead a large business?

And in the face of today’s young people studying more and more, and qualifying with some very exotic sounding qualifications, I came across a post from Carol Phillips, ‘Learning (or Not?) in the Digital Era‘ that suggests the kind of learning, that in my opinion leads to gravitas, isn’t happening. Take a read of these quotes I’ve lifted from her post:

Textbooks are becoming shorter and more condensed, in response to students’ impatience with long pages of text. Irrationally, I have come to judge my own competency as a teacher by howefficiently I can convey the concepts and complexity of the marketing and brand strategy without making unreasonable demands upon students. Increasingly, I see my job as the explorer coming back from a distant land to convey as much of what I know as is humanly possible to the untravelled audience in just 28 sessions.

“Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.”

“…The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.”

“Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

“Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning.”

“Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.”

“These results should be a wake up call to those of us in higher ed. College is not about byte-sized learning, it is about mastery and mastery requires more attention than what is required by hunting and gathering facts, or even learning how to hunt and gather facts.”

In my mind one of the key mechanisms to bridge this gap is mentoring. But may I qualify that… Not mentoring as many companies have come to know it. Mentoring that mirrors some of what our ancestors understood it to be. My fear is that we’ve taken mentoring and smothered it with a ‘McDonalds’ efficiency philosophy’. We line all the mentors and mentees up in a suitably large room, and say things like, “Mentee meet your mentors, mentors meet your mentees. Meet four times a year. Fill in these forms. Send them to HR. We’ll give you feedback and measure your progress.” While I’m aware I may be over-dramatising, I do fear I’m not far off the mark of some people’s experience.

I do appreciate why mentoring has been given the McDonalds once-over. Bottom line drives everything. Staff compliment is down to the bare minimum. Senior people (most suited for mentoring) are over-loaded with work and responsibility. Budgets are squeezed, especially for ‘non-essential’ budget items. In this environment there really is no choice. It’s mentoring the McDonalds way or nothing. And because something is better than nothing, we accept something. And yet, we’re frustrated because the results we thought we’d get, we aren’t getting. So mentoring processes last a year (if you’re lucky) and are then shelved for a few years.

Understanding some of the constraints, I’d like to offer up a few thoughts that I feel may take us closer to the essence of mentoring in today’s environment, keeping in mind the constraints business is working within:

Placing a large responsibility on the mentees to drive their own mentoring process and not relying on either a central person or the mentors selected to participate in the process.

Not strictly people driven. Using some human interaction and engagement as well as making use of technology to provide resources and strategic inputs.

Allow mentees to identify their own mentoring needs so they can select specialist mentors who can meet the identified needs. This will mean multiple mentors for specific outcomes, within defined time-frames.

Of course each of these points need more time and space to be teased out.

There is no doubt in my mind that more ‘thinking work’ is needed to find better ways to expose people to mentoring, in a business environment that doesn’t easily allow mentoring the way we historically understand it. What we can’t allow, is depth to be removed by creating efficient and easily monitored processes. Mentoring is messy. It’s focus is growth and development, and growth and development rarely come from a neat linear process.

The stakes are high. If organisations fail to find ways to develop gravitas and depth, the sustainability of their business is at risk.

If you’d like to continue this conversation with Barrie, please contact him at


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