Roy Group News

ian chisholm with mentors robert henderson and mark bell

Roy Group Research: Stories Of Mentorship

Robert Henderson, Mark Bell and Ian Chisholm ca. 2011

By Ian Chisholm

If someone asked me to share a story where I received guidance from a Mentor, I’d start with this one. The feeling that comes up for me is that something potent and definitive about mentorship happened for me in the following situation.

* * *

It started as a little tangle about the meaning of the word integrity.

I had proposed to the group that integrity on our team meant ‘keeping one’s word’—something that becomes functional versus a moral sense of right or wrong. One of the group members (who had a lot of status and swing with their peers) was arguing that the world needed the concept of integrity to be about ‘doing the right thing’.

So I used an example of the way it worked on our team. The morning schedule promised a tea break at 10:30 a.m., and as we approached that time on the clock, everyone on the team knew that our team member Chloe would be readying that tea break (to a high standard) while we conducted our meeting. At 10:30, when the doors opened to the break room, it was a matter of our entire team’s integrity that Chloe had put in the effort to maintain the promised schedule.

The group member who was debating with me put quite a large hypothetical situation on the table. “So, if we were hit by a meteor at 10:20 a.m., would it mean that Chloe lacked integrity for not having set up the tea station?”

I knew that I’d been hooked, but I didn’t even know why. I reached down deep for just a little more professionalism in the moment, but the coffers of that poise had been tapped. I was tired of this conversation and did not want it to eat up any more of our time together. I didn’t pull my hair out or raise my voice. I went stock still and lowered my tone. I knew what I was about to say.

What I didn’t know was just how contemptuous and acidic my tone would be as I was saying it.

“If we were hit by a meteor at 10:20, and Chloe was still alive, my expectation would be that she would gather broken bits of wood to start a fire, to heat the water, to make the tea so that at 10:30 a.m., there would be a tea break, as promised. And THAT very act of keeping her word in such a circumstance—of making that tea—would be a moment of great and memorable inspiration for anyone else who was still alive to share it.”

I left the very quiet room, walked past Chloe, who was smiling in blissful ignorance of everything that was happening behind closed doors (but she was smiling in front of a well-prepared tea break, thank goodness), and went up to my office.

Mark and Robert—two of my most notable Mentors to this day—followed me.

“That was a little edgy, Chiz.”

“I think we have some mending to do.”

The next 10 minutes were some of the most instructive moments of my life. I wasn’t being judged for what I had said…but I did need to change course from the inside out—and in real time.

They used the time we had to get me there.

  • Where had my frustration come from?
  • What was I making this person’s challenge mean?
  • Why had I chosen to respond so harshly with the obvious intent to end the conversation? Particularly since this person was a key decision maker on this project?
  • How would we move forward?
  • What would be the first thing I’d say when the session reconvened?

The groundedness Robert and Mark displayed. The non-judgment. The unity of purpose. The invitation to take accountability. This was mentorship at its finest.

In mapping out this story for you, I can now understand the themes that underpin it—themes I would not have started with when asked about a topic as complex as mentorship.

* * *

“The truth is always in our stories.”

I first heard David Snowden say that more than a decade ago. At the time, he and his team at Cognitive Edge were exploring the possibilities of a research tool that could actually distill patterns of data…from stories.

They called it SenseMaker®. (Makes perfect sense.)

The essence of Snowden’s creation was a database for narrative fragments: thousands of ‘stories’ collected on a specific topic. Topics that don’t normally lend themselves to quantifying. And fragments that, together, can tell you what is really going on.

Because with mentorship…it’s a kind of alchemy, right? It’s not a precise formula. At present, our world lacks a clearly defined pattern that describes what, exactly, a Mentor is. We seek to change that.

For years, Roy Group has focused on mentorship. When we look behind us, we know that mentorship is a force that has intersected our lives and created little quantum bumps in our development as humans. When we look into the future, the idea of powerful mentorship provides us with some hope in addressing wicked problems.

In the present, for Roy Group, the concept of mentorship has become our muse—something we would like to understand deeply. It’s our north star.

We want to find out:

  • What conditions create an ideal crucible for meaningful mentorship?
  • What conditions or factors compromise the strongest bonds?
  • What hazards rupture the crucible?
  • How can we create opportunities for mentorship that serve the world?

Now, of course, we have opinions about all of this from our own lived experience. But how do we actually know how mentorship functions in the world? That would take thousands and thousands of people from every walk of life sharing their stories.

So we’re turning to you.

We’re asking you to write your stories of mentorship into the SenseMaker® collector.

As you do so, your words will naturally tag your tale with whatever themes fit. There is more in your stories than you can imagine.

Once the stories are collected, the software helps us discern key themes and insights that otherwise we would be guessing at. We will be able to ‘read the wind on the water’ about a dynamic that could create a lot of good in the world.

So…will you help us with our research?

Tell us your stories of mentorship. Those times when someone exemplified the finest conduct, and encouraged you to do the same. And the times when it went wrong—when it did not provide you with what you needed. We want them all. And once you have shared one story and other narrative fragments come to mind…we would like you to share those ones, too.

Visit our Gift of Mentorship-Mentee SenseMaker® web collector. Log as many experiences as you like.

Two, five, ten. Forty-seven. More is more.

You won’t be identified, nor will the other people in your story. We don’t even ask for any names.

Circle back in a month and write some more.

Send the SenseMaker® collector link to your peers. To your leaders. To your direct reports. To your Mentors.

We want to create better patterns in the world.

Help us do it.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.