Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Better Than Any Assigned Mentor by Michelle Kunz

Never take the advice of someone who has not had your kind of trouble.
-- Sidney J. Harris

Nothing is less sincere than our mode of asking and giving advice. He who asks seems to have a deference for the opinion of his friend, while he only aims to get approval of his own and make his friend responsible for his action. And he who gives advice repays the confidence supposed to be placed in him by a seemingly disinterested zeal, while he seldom means anything by his advice but his own interest or reputation.
-- Francois De La Rochefoucauld (1613 - 1680)

Mentoring For Success

Many success experts suggest finding a mentor as one way to assure success. Mentoring, as described by Jack Canfield, for example, in The Success Principles, is a fundamental aspect of "seeking out the clues of success." He dedicates an entire chapter to "Find a Wing to Climb Under." This chapter begins with instructions to find someone who has already accomplished what you wish to accomplish and seek their advice.

In the August 28 print edition of The Wall Street Journal Elizabeth Holmes wrote a column addressing the limitations of assigned mentor programs. In her article she cited examples of mismatched relationships, poorly run programs, ill defined objectives and lack of mentor commitment among the reasons why such programs might fail.

The trouble with many internal mentoring programs is they fail to make the essential match of determining what it is the mentee wishes to accomplish and who has already done it. In addition to other issues of personality matches and levels of desire for participation, this first test must be met in order for a mentoring relationship to exist. Many organizations simply match mentors and mentees at random. Other managers of internal programs believe they have met this objective based on shared experience and assumptions such as:
  • You must have the same goals as the person supervising you
  • Assigned mentor used to have your current position
  • Transitioned from same company
  • Transitioned from same discipline
  • Shared alma mater

Shared experiences might give you something to talk about, but they may have nothing to do with your professional objectives. Furthermore, if the company were to ask you to identify your objectives in the hope of better matching you to a potential mentor, it is highly unlikely you would feel free to share such information if it included plans to transition to another division or be promoted to CEO.

Companies offer mentoring programs with good intentions. Mentoring can be a path to success, as we have seen. In addition, new hires and new promotions often need additional help, and it would seem that a mentor relationship would make most sense for offering that help. This reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of a mentoring relationship, however, which is to show someone else how you accomplished what they would like to accomplish and guide them through the process. If we are looking simply to help a new hire or a new promotion, there are several non-mentor helping relationships which might be more useful. These include:
  • Buddy: show me where everything is and how it works and introduce me to key people
  • Supervisor: establish key position goals and objectives and walk me through the organizational structure
  • Guru: clue me in on organizational culture and other off-the-record information I can't find anywhere else

Any of these individuals might also make a great mentor. The key to finding a great mentor is first to understand what you want from them -- define your professional objective. A mentor is going to help you see what is possible within the organization and help set expectations of what you can achieve and how. They are going to take an interest in your professional development. In order for that to happen, this individual needs to be far enough ahead of you in the organization that they have perspective and experience.

A buddy can be a peer, and a guru can be anyone who has been there long enough to be in the know. Neither of these are necessarily someone far enough ahead to grant the necessary perspective to make a great mentor. Meanwhile a supervisor may find themselves with conflicting priorities or interests. What is in your best interest long term may be in direct conflict with what they need you to do right now.

Who's Who?

It takes time to identify someone who makes good mentor material. A quick read of who's who in the office line-up will not always reflect quality so much as altitude. How they got there is just as important as that they did. In addition, leadership styles matter. Someone who leads with "might makes right" or charisma will not be as good a mentor as someone who leads with a developmental leadership style. If you are new to the organization, ask around about leadership styles. People will likely have a lot of opinions they are happy to share.

Once you've identified a good candidate, the only thing left to do is make an appointment and ask. Most people are afraid to ask for what they want. The specific fears are too many to list, but they really are variations of the fear of rejection. We are afraid someone will say "no." That fear keeps us from asking someone out for a date, asking for that promotion, proposing a great idea, and finding a mentor who can show us the way to the very highest peaks of success. The truth is that if we do get a "no" we are no worse off than we were before except for our pride. If we can learn to manage our egos, we can learn to ask for anything and get much more than we currently have, just because we asked.

Successful people like to share what they have learned. And they want to be asked in a way that makes it seem appealing. Planning how to ask is an important part of the process which leads to a potential "yes." Developing a plan for the relationship in advance and showing how you plan to do the necessary work to make it a successful venture will certainly make a request much more attractive to a potential mentor.

Once you have found someone who will mentor you, the best way to keep that relationship vital is to follow through with what your mentor suggests. Wasting someone's time is never a good policy, and with mentors this is particularly true. Since you are ostensibly learning from what they have done, why would you not take their advice? Be very clear on this when you make the decision to enter into the relationship. If you are not prepared to act, do not bother making a proposal.

Alternatives to Assigned Mentoring

After reviewing how a successful mentoring relationship works, it is easy to see why many internal mentoring programs fail. In addition to the fatal flaw of the mismatch of desired to achieved success, without a personal request and commitment on the part of both parties, there is no buy-in. While the mentee may be desperate for help, the objectives may be unclear and help might be better sought through other sources.

If your organization offers assigned mentoring, there are alternatives, such as training and coaching, which provide different benefits but which might be more appropriate solutions for you and your team. Training brings a specific program of skills to the individual or group and, if applied throughout the organization, can offer a certain level of consistency. For new hires, this can be a great choice if getting them up and running is the challenge. You can even develop an internal training program which uniquely addresses your needs.

Coaching can also provide a foundation for consistency if it is designed to do so. In addition, coaching provides a confidential arena for the coachee to explore areas of concern and challenge combined with objective feedback and observation. In the coaching relationship a coachee can try out new skills without concern, explore possibilities, and develop action plans which are tailored to their needs and the needs of the organization. Unlike training, coaching is flexible and provides ongoing support and feedback in a real time environment. Unlike mentoring, coaching does not provide advice, but rather supports the coachee in discovering unique solutions to challenges.

Organizations often opt for internal assigned mentoring programs because there is a perception that training and coaching are more costly. However, when employees are left feeling lost and have no where to turn in spite of having an assigned mentor, what is the cost to the organization and to the employee? Worse, when an organization has offered a benefit which has no actual benefit, but instead lays hidden costs on both the mentor, who feels obligated to spend precious time with someone they have little professional interest in, and the mentee, for whom the relationship can be a burden in a situation where burdens are the precise reason for the relationship, what are the costs?

Ms. Holmes concludes her article with an anecdote from one employee whose best advice came from someone else's assigned "buddy." This was someone she felt comfortable going to for help and with whom she shared projects for feedback before presenting them to management. Is this not the essence of a mentor relationship: identify, choose and ask? Powerful leaders know the value of these actions in a mentoring relationship and they provide opportunities for their team members to engage in them as often as needed for their individual and mutual success.


Coach Carolyn said...

Michelle, fabulous post on mentoring. I am a great advocate of the mentoring relationship. I myself mentor women, and have been and still am mentored by some great women.

Having the right fit is really important, especially if the relationship is to have any value.

Thanks for writing on this important and sometimes overlooked topic.


Michelle Kunz said...


Thanks for reading! It's great to hear about people who are benefiting from both sides of the mentoring relationship.

Share the power!