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Mentoring & Mentors


January 2015

A crackling-smart leader disdains mentors, although she says she loves to network. Exploring her resistance, her coach begins a conversation about methods to make a mentor relationship meaningful.

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January 2015

Mentoring & Mentors

Tom Henschel

Networking versus mentoring

Tracy was a captivating coaching client. Blessed with a crackling intellect, she devoured knowledge, jumping into every topic with passion.

One day, I mentioned mentoring. The instant she heard the word, she gave a little snort. “Mentors have never been my thing. But I’m great at networking.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

She thought a second, then said, “Networking has two parts for me. One is putting yourself out there. Going to events. Taking people to coffee. Not letting your work get you stuck in your office. Networking happens all the time, everywhere.”

She went on. “The second part is maintaining your network. Like this group of colleagues I’ve stayed in touch with. They’re all over the globe now, but I bounce ideas off them all the time. They’re my brain trust. And I work hard to stay connected to them.”

Then she gave a little sneer. “But a mentor is just someone who’s going to teach me something. I’m not saying I don’t need teachers, but when I want to learn something, I know where to go. I don’t need a mentor for that.”

I replied. “Your definition of networking and mine are exactly the same. And networking’s important. I even wrote a Coaching Tip about it. But, boy, my definition of mentoring is way different from yours.”

“How?” she asked. I admired Tracy’s ability to flip from defending her position to inquiring about mine. Here she’d done it again. Her interest was genuine.

Defining mentoring’s two parts

“A good mentor goes beyond someone just teaching you something. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why,” I said. “First, really powerful mentoring is a structured relationship. And second, the relationship is sustained over time.”

“Define ‘a structured relationship’,” she requested.

“It’s a relationship with a purpose. It has goals attached to it.”

She screwed up her face in distaste. “Sounds more like a transaction than a relationship.”

“Well, the quid pro quo is transparent. You tell your mentor your goals. And if she isn’t interested or can’t add value, then she’s not the right mentor for that goal. The cool thing is that you, the mentee, get to decide the goal. But both people should have goals—the mentee and the mentor, too!”

“I want to hear about the mentors’ goals,” she said, holding up a wait-a-minute finger, “but first talk more about the mentee’s. What sort of goals are we talking about?”

“Well, I asked one of my mentors to mentor me on business acumen. I asked another about assessments, and one mentored me to be a better coach.”

“These were your own mentors?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’ve always had mentors. My mentors have allowed me to live the life I’ve lived.”

“How so?” she asked.

“Well, I’ve never had a real ‘job’,” I said, putting air quotes around the word. “I was an actor for over twenty years. Now, for over twenty years, I’ve led Essential Communications. I couldn’t have sustained either career without mentors.”

“So you found mentors on things like business acumen? And you just asked for help?”

I nodded. “I was motivated. I had to make a living!”

Generate good goals

She paused, then said, “I’m trying to think what a goal of mine might be.”

“Well, what have your development areas been for the last three or four years?” I asked.

“You know those! ‘Be more approachable’ and ‘stop sounding like a machine gun’,” she said, putting up air quotes of her own.

“You could get mentored on those.”

“From whom? Not Peter, that’s for sure!” she said, referencing her boss.

“You have a big network. You must know leaders who have great people skills.”

“So I’d reach out to them, and say, ‘Hey, I’ve really gotten dinged the last few years on my people skills. How’d you like to mentor me on that?”

I laughed. “Well, you might give it a positive spin, like, ‘I hear you’re fantastic with people. I’d really like to learn what you know’.”

She nodded, able to imagine that. “Can you name some other goals?”

“You might get mentoring from someone who’s a particularly good political player. Or from someone whose career looks good to you so you can do career planning.”

I saw her get an idea. “There’s a woman in the industry who’s much more senior than I am. But eight or nine years ago she had a job almost exactly like mine. I’d love to talk with her.”

“Perfect. So how would you go about that, Tracy?”

“I’m sure I can wrangle an introduction. Then I’d take her to lunch.”

“And then?” I asked.

She stopped, stumped. “I actually haven’t a clue where I’d go after that.”

Learn the nuts and bolts

“Well, this is where you get to the longevity piece. There’s real value when someone can track you over time.”

“Like with the coaching,” she said.

“Exactly,” I agreed. “So you’d tell her your goal, then ask for regular meetings.”

“‘Regular’ meaning how often?”

“I’d say at least three or four times a year. More might be better. But you’d figure that out.”

“And how do I prepare for these regular meetings? Just focus on my goal?”

“Yes, at least in the beginning,” I said. “Especially if your mentor doesn’t know you. You want to show her you’re serious and aren’t going to waste her time.”

“Wasting time wouldn’t be a problem with her. I could come up with a list of topics that would last us a long time!” Tracy said.

“Good. You should have a list. That’s part of being prepared.” Building on that idea, I said, “Turn it around for a second, Tracy. Suppose someone said she wanted you to mentor her, then showed up in your office and said, ‘Okay. I’m here. Help me.’ As if you were responsible for her development.”

“I get it. Don’t show up without clear goals. OK. I won’t make that mistake.” She moved onto another thought. “It’s funny to think of myself in the role of learner. I’m more used to being the person who gets stuff done!”

“That’s another benefit,” I agreed. “When I’m with my mentor, I get to become a learner again. That always makes me a better coach.”

Tracy added her own idea. “We aren’t asked to be learners around here. That is definitely not what we get paid for. But I can see that it would keep me well rounded.” She eyed me, then asked, “What do you think about the fact that this woman is at another company?”

“Sounds fine. Why not?”

Then, arguing the other side, she mused, “But I could see the value of an in-house mentor, too. Especially if she understood what I do. And knew the players!”

“There’s a lot to be said for that, too. Of course, you’d have to trust that you can speak openly,” I said.

Is there a gender factor?

“Yes,” she agreed. Then, “Funny—I keep picturing my mentors as women. Is that important?”

“I usually recommend same-sex mentors. Especially for women. But sometimes the person’s role is more important than their gender. And sometimes, when a woman has a senior man as her champion, it can do a lot of good.”

“Earlier you mentioned that mentors should have goals, too. What would those look like?”

“Well, why you would mentor someone? Here you are as a V.P. in this gigantic company. What would be in it for you?”

It didn’t take her long to answer. “It would be interesting to explain my perspective on things. This summer I was at a family reunion and tried to explain what I do to a cousin of mine. It wasn’t easy but it was really helpful.”

“I’ve had the same experience,” I said. “Teaching something that’s become intuitive to me really gives me perspective.”

“Exactly,” she agreed.

“That’s why I encourage even junior people to become mentors. It helps them see how far they’ve come and how much they know.”

“Now that’s an interesting idea! I could encourage my direct reports to start mentoring. Of course, I’d have to be doing it myself,” she said with a laugh.

“Here’s another benefit,” I offered. “When one of my mentees needs something, it’s a great opportunity for me to reach out to my network and ask them to help. Like you said, it keeps my network alive.”

“I like that!” she said. “And asking them to help my mentee is different from asking for something for myself. And I’m putting them in the role of expert. That’s good! It’s a little Machiavellian but good!”

“Why Machiavellian?” I asked.

“Because in the guise of doing good, I’m playing politics.”

“I don’t think it’s Machiavellian. There’s no loser. Everyone wins.”

“Okay,” she said, “so being a mentor would give me some perspective, and I’d help someone and maybe help myself.”

“Oh, you will definitely help yourself,” I said. “When I mentor people, I always learn something!”

“Okay, so I need to set goals, then find someone to mentor me on those goals. Then have regular meetings. And I need to find someone I’m going to mentor, too!” She took a big breath as if she’d just set herself a high bar.

“Trust me, it’s a good thing, Tracy.” What I didn’t say—but believe deeply—was that mentoring is another path that leads to The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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