by Larry Johnson
Assigning a sempai (mentor) to a kohai (mentoree) is a common practice among Japanese companies. A promising young manager, the kohai, is assigned to an older, more experienced manager, the sempai. The sempai is usually outside the kohai’s chain of command and functions much like a “godfather” to him or her. In addition to his normal managerial duties, it is the sempai’s job to help the kohai succeed in all areas of work from technical questions to operational issues to organizational politics.
There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Tampopo in which a group of Japanese businessmen go to lunch at a fancy French restaurant. As is the custom in Japanese culture, everyone waits for the CEO to order and then they all order the same thing. When the waiter gets to the youngest member of the group, however, he grills the waiter about all the options on the menu, asking which wines go with which entrees, and finally orders a meal three times more expensive than that of the CEO. As he does this, his sempai is kicking him under the table, trying to keep him from killing his career.
You may wonder why you wouldn’t just have the young person’s manager be the sempai. Isn’t it the manager’s job to mentor her people? To a degree that’s true, but the manager has a conflicting interest in the kohai. She is, of course, interested in his success, but she’s also interested in his failure. Her first responsibility is not to the kohai but to the work unit; if the kohai is failing to contribute, eventually the manager must act for the good of the group and get rid of him.
On the other hand, because he has no responsibility for the success of the group but is only accountable for the success of the kohai, the sempai can focus on helping the kohai do well. It’s a matter of incentive. The manager is rewarded when the group is successful. If she must fire the kohai to make that happen, so be it. The sempai is rewarded for the success of the kohai. If the manager fires the kohai, it becomes a black mark on the sempai’s career. Who wouldn’t love to have a mentor with that level of interest in your success? Our suggestion is to create a system that assigns baby boomers to serve as sempais for promising Gen Xers and Gen Yers. Include it as an assigned duty on the contract that is the basis for the baby boomers’ performance reviews. Be sure to involve each baby boomer sempai in the process of selecting the kohai, identifying goals, establishing the criteria for success, and clarifying personal preferences so the boomer doesn’t feel like he didn’t have a say in who he was assigned.
When a Gen X kohai achieves success by mastering a skill, completing a project, or getting promoted, be sure to invite her baby boomer sempai to the recognition party and applaud him for his part in the success.