Mentoring Changed My Life: It can help your organization, too

By. Dr. Walter Reichman

Ample evidence shows a positive link between mentoring and business or career success. For example, small businesses with mentors succeed at twice the national average. Mentors provide high levels of psychological support, career related support, and enhanced self-esteem. Mentoring programs within organizations lead to increased retention, greater promotions, and a technique for developing in-house talent. Mentoring also provides a level of gratification, accomplishment, and satisfaction to the mentor.

But I don’t need studies to tell me this. My life and career were greatly influenced by several mentors, but the most influential was Dr. Timothy Costello, professor of psychology and management at both the undergraduate and graduate business school that I attended. I served as his teaching assistant, a position that changed the course of my career and life.

Dr. Costello was an excellent professor who taught as though he was in collaboration with his students. He worked with his assistants as though we were his peers and had the same level of knowledge and experience as he had, which was obviously impossible. He worked with us by stimulating our curiosity and directing us to apply research to our ideas and to test his contributions to our ideas. Outside of the college, Costello was a politician active in the Liberal Party in New York City, as well as in the NAACP and other human rights organizations. At the same time, he was producing research and writing books that became classics in I-O psychology.

His relationship with me was as a considerate mentor doing whatever he could to promote my education. But I was nothing special; he did the same for all of the other assistants. One Friday, he informed me that I would teach his experimental psychology class on Monday while he observed. I spent the weekend preparing for my hour-long presentation on psychophysics, the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation. In my 40-plus years of teaching, I have never prepared for a class the way I prepared for this one. First, I brushed up on psychophysics, then spent countless hours practicing in front of the mirror. Next, I practiced in front of my parents. My goal was to gain the approval of Dr. Costello. Monday morning arrived and I stood before the class and began my presentation, and something completely unanticipated happened to me. I saw the light go on in students' eyes, I saw frowns turn to smiles, and I saw heads nod in agreement. I was getting through to the students on this complex and difficult topic. Before I finished, I knew for certain that I wanted more of this. Whatever else I would do, I knew I had to teach. At the end of the hour, the students clapped. Dr. Costello walked over to me and said, “You’re enough of a ham to be a good teacher,” and took me out to lunch. His words were equivalent to winning a Nobel prize for me.

Moving forward after that year, I left NYU and went to the Baruch School of City College for an MBA in I-O psychology, had a teaching assistantship there, and went on to an Ed. D at Teachers College of Columbia University while teaching at Baruch School. Dr. Costello continued as an NYU Professor, became head of the Liberal Party in New York, and brought the support of the Party to the election of John Lindsey as the mayor of New York. Consequently, he was made the Deputy Mayor of New York. After his tenure as a city official he became President of Adelphi College.

I always wanted to tell Dr. Costello how important he was in my life, and how much I respected him and emulated him, but it never seemed to be appropriate. He was always surrounded by people, and it seemed out of place the times we had lunch together. Finally, I found an opportunity, when I was a full professor at Baruch and about to become the chairman of the psychology department. Dr. Costello and I were both present at a reception, and as I saw him about to leave, I knew it was now or never. I pushed myself through the group surrounding him and said my prepared piece of gratitude. There were slight gasps from the crowd around him. Tim smiled at me, said thank you, and turned and left. I felt gratified that I had finally said what I had wanted to say for years. A week later, I received a letter from Tim saying, “I can’t tell you how important your words were to me. That day I had decided to retire as president of Adelphi and in reaching that decision I evaluated my life and my career. My wish for you is that someday your students give you the same gratification that you gave me, and knowing you, I am sure they will.”

His note that my message of gratitude had a positive effect on him at an important moment in his life provided me with a great deal of satisfaction that I was able to give him some measure of what he had given me. His wish to me impacted my work with students at the college and with those starting their careers in business and consulting. Throughout the course of my career, I tried to pay forward what he gave me by mentoring others. Mentoring is a positive experience for both the mentor and the mentee, and if your organization doesn’t have any formal mentoring program, I would urge you to start one. When possible, you can connect employees internally, although in some cases you may need to look outside of your organization for the right fit. Mentors can be individuals with similar interests, career paths, or just inspiring people. By creating a culture of mentoring, you’ll help employees feel more connected to one another, improve employee engagement, and just possibly, change the course of someone’s life. 

Dr. Walter Reichman is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, the president of the Psychology Coalition of the United Nations, and the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is also a Professor Emeritus from Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Walter is the editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Help the Vulnerable: Serving the Underserved. Walter has an MBA from City College of the City University of New York and an MA and Ed.D from Teachers College of Columbia University.

This article is part three of a new series on the life of Dr. Walter Reichman.

Email Dr. Reichman directly for more information.