The business world is abuzz these days with the terms “social capital” and “social networks.” Much of this buzz might focus on the latest features of a given social networking website, or which company is going to hit it big next. But the underlying premise of social capital is that relationships have significant value that can help individuals and communities. Of course, mentoring is all about relationships, so let’s explore how a “Social Capitalist” perspective can help us as mentors.Accessing new networks: While having a lot of friends is generally a good thing, educational and economic success is often based on “the strength of weak ties.” If you are a college-educated professional mentoring a young person who doesn’t have family or neighbors who went to college, you can create a bridge to circles your mentee wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. This can have tangible benefits such as connections to job or scholarship opportunities, and has significance in terms of transmitting norms and values that support success. Many youth in need of mentors have a lot of negative influences around them – providing mentees opportunities to interact with our own family and friends can provide alternative examples.
Teaching social norms: I recall a teen mentoring program I worked with where the teens decided they wanted to organize a Thanksgiving dinner for isolated seniors. They were excited about the idea, so I was wondering why they were stumbling in carrying out their assigned tasks. I came to realize they were very intimidated by the basics of making a business phone call, and we needed to provide them training to increase their comfort level on this unfamiliar task. Young people will learn some norms and skills they need through simple observation, but we can also explicitly teach them skills like professional etiquette, appropriate attire for various situations and other behaviors that we might take for granted. The struggles of first generation college students from urban schools are now well-documented; I suspect mentors could help address this by helping youth develop effective study skills and other habits that lead to success.
Building social capital: Social capital is created in relationships where there is a reciprocal feeling of trust. As anyone who has been a mentor knows, trust with our mentee must be earned over time. At Social Capital Inc., we train Social Capitalists to think in terms of how to make social capital “deposits” that strengthen our relationships, and this thinking can definitely help us as mentors.
Probably the most important thing we can do is make agreements to do things with our mentees, and take care to stick to the commitments we make. Also, listening empathetically to problems without being judgmental is another vital way we build social capital with them. Explicitly working to build our social capital with our mentees will help our success with them, and it also models effective relationship building skills that healthy youth need to develop.
Now if you’ve read this far you have some perspective on how a Social Capitalist approach can help young people we serve. But the social capital benefits of mentoring aren’t just for the young people! Volunteering with a mentoring program is a great way to build your own social capital. Other volunteers you meet can expand your base of professional contacts—and the commitment to youth you share with these volunteers provides a good foundation of social capital with them. As noted in a recent study by LinkedIn, volunteer experience can differentiate you from other candidates when seeking a job.
We mentor to enrich our own lives and that of others. This wealth we create is social capital.
Guest author David Crowley is the founder and president of Social Capital, Inc.