A mentor can be a lot of things. Advisor. Sounding board. North star. Catalyst. Naysayer. Cheerleader. Connector. Closer.
Mentoring is one of the very best ways to improve a younger employee’s career progress and opportunities.
Most companies and people go about it all wrong.
I am a big believer in “choices.” But I also believe firmly in the concept of planning and creating your own success on your own terms. Mentoring, is one of the tried-and-true tips for improving the odds of achieving your life goals.
But, after having made my way to the CEO office and the Board room, I have my own twist on what works – both for the mentor and the mentee.
My Own Epiphany
It’s common in corporate mentoring programs for senior employees and younger employees to create a mentor-mentee relationship as part of their job requirements. In fact, sometimes it’s part of their reviews and they are measured against it.
This can happen in a couple of ways: the relationship can be assigned (think: arranged marriage), or the mentee can identify a desired mentor (think: dating app). Much of the business world believes this system succeeds. But think about it: Two strangers, meeting every now and then. What are the odds of success? Pretty low.
I learned personally early on at IBM that that the junior-employee-selecting-a-senior-mentor idea doesn’t work. I tried to play it safe and reached out to a branch manager I knew pretty well and with whom I already was comfortable. Fortunately, when I asked him to be my mentor, he balked and told me:
“Shellye, you’ve already got me.”
I quickly realized: because of our relationship, he was already mentoring me and I needed to identify someone outside my circle … because that’s where I would find the real value. He also helped me realize that I could have multiple mentors.
At his or her core, a mentor should be someone who has already successfully traveled the road the mentee intends to pursue and who has a “toolkit” – with proven approaches, points of view and decision-making procedures – that a mentee can access. Someone with the following qualities.
Invested. Mentors really need to be taking on the role and the responsibilities because he or she wants to, and not just because its required.
Understands role. Mentees have certain goals and mentors need to understand what the younger professional hopes to achieve. Ideally, his or her contribution aligns with those objectives.
Engaged. Mentors need to be active participants – enthusiastic, available and focused on delivering value.
Expertise. Obvious, right? But is the field a mentee is pursuing exactly the same as it was when this prospective mentor was in that role? Good rule of thumb: mentee should find at least one mentor who is no more than 10 years older than he or she is.
Throughout my career, I’ve rarely asked people to mentor me. I simply “adopted” them, treating them like a mentor without ever asking … identifying and bringing into my orbit as many of the right people as possible.
The process: determine who can give you useful advice and find a way to run into them. Ask a simple yes-or-no question. Thank them and go away. Next: apply the advice, catch them again (in person or by email) say thanks and provide an update. And ask another question or two. By closing the loop each time, you make them feel good about their ability to help and impact your success.
Bingo. As you succeed, they may even start claiming you as a mentee.
There’s almost nothing you will try in your lifetime that somebody else hasn’t already done.
In your mind, you’re innovating. Understood. But rarely are you doing something 100 percent new. If you want to move forward quickly in your career, seek out the people who can help you do a better job in the role you have and the people who can help you understand what your next steps might look like.
Remember, at all times, that what worked for someone else might not work for you.
Different environment and different times? No doubt. You may need to find a different or unique path to your goal. Ultimately, advice is great, but you have to put it through the filter of your own reality.
Getting It Right
There’s an interesting dynamic that develops between mentor and mentee. When a mentee first meets someone whose brain he or she wants to pick, the mentor’s personality is still an unknown. But the mentee’s instinct says to do whatever is suggested. But the point of mentorship isn’t to serve someone more successful than yourself; it’s to ask them to serve you, in their own way.
In order for the relationship to work, it is essential that mentees “manage up” and:
Know what he or she has to offer
Figure out what other people can to do for them
As they meet people, tell them exactly what they can help you with
Set a goal and share with others what they need in order to achieve it
Maintain organizational control and simplify the process for the mentor
Mentees can make mentoring work for them by tailoring programs to fit their needs. Some real value can flow from some simple customization.
The payoff is worth it.