A Good Mentor Can Keep Your Potential Jedis from Turning to the Dark Side

As if that title didn’t give it away, I’m kind of a sci-fi nerd. I don’t speak Klingon, and I’ve never watched a single episode of Dr. Who, but my current reading list includes a revisit of Foundation, I have a Starship Enterprise pizza cutter, and I lose more time than I like to admit on Twilight Zone and X-Files marathons. And, I get a bit of a geeky kick out of my firm’s name.

mentorship yoda

Star Wars is my favorite, however, and I have been watching the current Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in recent weeks. For those of you who are not familiar with Star Wars (I’ve heard there are a few), Obi-Wan Kenobi (aka Ben Kenobi), as a young Jedi, reluctantly took on the job of training Anakin Skywalker.

He did so at the urging of his Jedi master, and it did not turn out so well because Anakin took that training and became Darth Vader, a Sith Lord (i.e., bad guy) who could—and often did—use the Force to throttle people from a distance when they disappointed him.

After Anakin turned to the Dark Side, Obi-Wan changed his name to Ben and laid low in some caves for 20 years or so until the Skywalker kids, who Obi-Wan had hidden from Anakin before going into hiding himself, got themselves involved in a rebellion against the galactic empire and needed some Jedi help. Ben rounded up Luke Skywalker and started training him to be a Jedi.

That didn’t go so well either, in large part because Obi-Wan decided not to tell Luke that Vader was his dad, leaving Luke to find out from Vader himself. After breaking the news to Luke, Vader threatened to kill him if he didn’t join Vader and the evil emperor in ruling the galaxy. Luke, while troubled over the “my dad is an evil Sith Lord who wants to kill me” thing, never became a Sith Lord like Vader, but he did end up trying to train his nephew, who went on to lead the First Order (i.e., a group of bad guys) and was bent on destroying a bunch of planets in the galaxy. After that, Luke quit the Jedi and became a hermit.

One could say it’s a story of mentoring gone terribly wrong. Mentoring programs are often used by employers as a means of training new employees or developing existing employees for advancement.  An experienced mentor can act as a resource for a new or developing employee by providing guidance and counsel on how to be successful in the employer’s organization. Mentors—ideally employees whom the employer has chosen for the role because they demonstrate qualities the employer wants other employees to emulate—can help ensure continuity in an employer’s workforce in terms of employee retention and institutional knowledge.

But mentoring programs are not simply a matter of pairing two people and relying on the experience of one or the interest and ambition of the other to make the mentor-mentee relationship work. Common recommendations for organizations setting up a mentoring program include:

  • In most cases, both the mentor’s and the mentee’s participation in the program should be voluntary. 
  • The program should incorporate a process for evaluating the compatibility of the mentor and mentee with respect to career goals, work and communication styles, and interests. 
  • Formal “ground rules” that set forth matters such as how often the participants should meet, what topics should be covered, and what happens if the mentor or mentee feels the relationship is not working out can also help ensure that the organizations’ goals for the program are met. 
  • The employer, through HR or other leadership, needs to periodically check in with both participants to make sure both are satisfied with the relationship.

In the current Obi-Wan tale, which takes place around 9 years after Obi-Wan went into hiding, Anakin/Vader is so upset at the failure of his mentor that he has a team of baddies searching the corners of the galaxy for him. The consequences of a failed mentoring arrangement are generally much less dramatic but can be a problem for employers nonetheless. In most cases, employers invest in mentoring programs as a means of training and developing individuals they want to retain long term.

A poor mentor-mentee relationship can end up being counterproductive in that the mentee will often not receive the type of guidance the employer wants to convey and instead may develop a negative view of the employer.

Many organizations are choosing to make remote or hybrid work arrangements permanent. There are certainly benefits to both employer and employees in such arrangements, but the lack of a distinct workplace and distance from coworkers may contribute to workers’ feeling that employers are interchangeable. A well-run mentorship program is one means of developing a stronger connection with new employees that can help increase employee loyalty and decrease turnover.

Best wishes to you all for a great summer! (And, of course, may the Force be with you.)

Becky Kalas is a partner at FordHarrison.

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