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Passion, People and Principles

Are You Being Mentored?

post # 75 — May 13, 2006 — a Careers, Strategy post

The concept of being mentored sounds like something that happens to you when you’re young and on the way up. The truth, however, is that, at any age or stage, we all need a loving critic, a friendly skeptic, a coach, a mentor to help us make sense of the world. Do you currently have someone who:

  1. Is reliably, dependably on your side but is not afraid to critique you?
  2. You can rely on to tell you the truth – gently, but nevertheless the truth?
  3. Helps you understand how you are perceived, inside your organization and in the marketplace?
  4. Helps you extract the right lessons from your disappointments and failures?
  5. Keep you from getting carried way with too much enthusiasm about your successes?
  6. Watches you and lets you know when you are failing to keep things in balance?
  7. Acts as your sounding board for your new ideas before you launch them, so that you can refine them (and sometimes abandon the crazier ones?)
  8. Suggests new things for you to consider?
  9. Helps you see things from fresh perspectives, and helps you think things through, without substituting their judgment for yours?
  10. Helps you understand the politics of the organization you are in or have to work with?

cover of David Maister's co-authored book, Thr

(Regular readers will notice the overlap between this list and material in my book Trusted Advisor.)

We all need to keep our eyes and ears open at all times for people who might serve one or more of these roles for us. It’s not true that we only need one mentor, or that one person can do everything on the list above.

If you don’t currently have people who play these roles for you, then you have work to do. Go make a mentor or two (or three or four.)

Some people look for a mentor who will be their champion, helping them get the best opportunities, supporting their cause and smoothing their way up the ladder. However, such relationships are rare. They are usually the eventual outcome of a long-term relationship, not its starting point.

The best way to think of a mentor is as someone who will be your confidante and guide. Someone you can go to in order to try out ideas, get feedback and advice. The mentor is thus your coach, not your champion. He or she doesn’t create your success for you, but helps you create your own success.

Finding, creating and sustaining a mentor is just like any other relationship: you get out of it what you put into it, and you cannot wait for the other person to seek you out. You have to work actively to develop and refresh your network of mentors.

Mentors do not have to be your superiors at work. In my case, former clients have been invaluable as people I can talk about my work with. Even though our time together began with me advising them, they are often delighted to “reverse” the relationship and help me. If you let your clients get to know you as a person, and the things you face in your career, many will respond with friendship.

Other sources of mentors can be colleagues with whom you have previously worked. (I owe a significant debt of gratitude to Charlie Green and Patrick McKenna, previous co-authors, who, to this day, still take the time to preview my writing and make suggestions. I try to do the same for them.)

As always, you build a relationship by earning it with small gestures of goodwill- finding ways to be helpful to the other person above and beyond the call of duty. Show an interest in them, without rushing to get what you want out of the relationship. Start small. Don’t expect a caring relationship to occur immediately upon your initial interaction with someone. Try to be useful to them even in a small way, whether it is helping on an internal project, providing work to a new client, or exploring a mutual interest.

Get to know your possible mentor, then begin slowly asking for their advice. Don’t expect them to spend an hour with you after a one-month project. However, they would probably gladly spend 15 minutes talking with you about their experience, or giving their advice on a career issue you are facing. The key is to make it easy for them to help you.

So, here’s your action list for today.

First, reflect on what aspects of being mentored (using the list above as a starting guide) you could usefully use more input and guidance.

Second, reflect on who you have met recently (or deal with regularly) who might be in a position to help you get better.

Third, start to build a relationship with those people (it’s almost certainly more than one person) earning their goodwill and trust by finding a way to be helpful to them.

(By the way – a message for top executives and corporate readers – all this applies to organizations, too. How well mentored do you think your firm is? What could you do about that?)


Gary Bourgeault said:

Not only in the overall aspects of your life and work, but also in very specific areas mentors can be invaluable.

Maybe someone has a good grasp on most things, for example, yet, say in some new technological area they’re clueless.

This is a great time to enlist a mentor to help you understand the specifics of that particular discipline.

I see mentors that are have a more broad influence in our lives and mentors that can take up very targeted narrower areas. Each one has a unique contribution we need.

posted on May 14, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Great topic, David.

As a manager, there is nothing as rewarding as the reputation of being a mentor to direct reports. If you develop a mentoring relationship, your direct reports will run through a brick wall for you, cover your mistakes, and grant your their discretionary efforts—the key, in my opinion, to becoming a great manager. See Dale Dauten’s marvelous book, The Gifted Boss, on this topic. (By the way, Dale Dauten’s website http://www.dauten.com/books.html offers The Gifted Boss and his latest book, Better Than Perfect—perhaps the best business book I have ever read—2 for 1 signed manauscripts with a full money back guarantee.)

Consider mentoring as a volunteer, especially an executive at a non-profit you support. This furthers the mission of the organization, sharpens your mentoring skills, and can expose you to individuals you would never meet in any other way. People who are passionate about a non-profit will appreciate and remember your help.

In order to attract a mentor, tell the person that you consider him/her a mentor already. Everyone likes to be Yoda.

posted on May 15, 2006