Why Formal Learning Isn’t Enough: The Importance of Leading By Example

By Mike BergelsonJune 14, 2013

Of all the benefits of mentoring, one of the most important is the opportunity for the protégé to gain practical skills and knowledge from someone more experienced.   But why is this so important?  After all, most executives these days have a four-year college degree and often a graduate degree, and companies offer a wide range of formal training programs. So why is informal learning so important?


Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks gave this piece of advice to aspiring political leaders:

“Apprentice yourself to a master craftsman. Find yourself a modern version of Ted Kennedy cobbling together a Senate majority. Find yourself some silent backstage official, who knows how to slide ideas through the bureaucracy. Glue yourself to that person in order to learn the craft of governance.”

His recommendation holds true for other fields too. If you’re new to a company, shadowing an experienced colleague is one of the best ways to learn the ropes. But often this shadowing only takes place for the first few days on the job. What if you could keep learning from someone for months, or years? The benefits could be dramatic.

It goes beyond just learning processes and procedures. Brooks says the kind of “practical knowledge” that can only be learned by apprenticing yourself to a master craftsman includes elements of business style like “how much, when running a meeting, to let the conversation flow and how much to rein it in.”

Cultural Knowledge

One thing that’s very difficult to transmit through formal education is corporate culture. Every organization has its own rules and expectations, and sometimes its own jargon and vocabulary. 

In a paper on the Organizational Benefits of Mentoring, James Wilson and Nancy Elman wrote that mentoring contributed to “a strong corporate culture that provides members with a common value base, and with implicit knowledge of what is expected of them and what they in turn can expect from the organization.” 

Mentors can transmit this organizational culture to their protégés, letting them know what to expect and helping them to meet their boss’s and colleagues’ expectations of them. 

It works in a broader context, too. Mentors can transmit the culture not just of an organization but of an industry or field. Steve Jobs, for example, was mentored in his early days at Apple by Silicon Valley veteran Robert Noyce, who he says gave him “the lay of the land” in the technology industry of the day.

Tricks of the trade

In his article “What We Learn When We Learn By Doing,” Northwestern University professor Roger Schank wrote that, “Learning by doing works because it teaches implicitly rather than explicitly.” People pick things up naturally, in other words, and the knowledge is easier to retrieve when they need it.

This kind of implicit learning can take place in many different ways, but a mentoring relationship is one of the most powerful. Your mentor can model effective behaviors for you, helping you to deal with challenges as they come along. What you learn from a mentor not only helps with the situation at hand, but also gets stored away in your memory for use in the future.

As Brooks concluded, “You will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.” 

Your mentor can be that person, whether in public life or in any other career. Technical knowledge has its place too, and we’re certainly not knocking the value of formal education. But a good mentor can add to that, teaching you things you’d never find in a textbook.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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