All too often, mentorship becomes an exercise in career cheerleading rather than the delivery of hard truths.
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.” —Vernon Law
This is especially true of business leadership, whose career path is shaped by trial and error and where much of the learning comes after the fact. Mentoring can play a crucial role in accelerating the development of future leaders, equipping them with the wisdom and tools to bypass many of the pitfalls.
A great mentor is akin to a great coach—they should not be afraid to hold a mirror to a mentee and provide brutally honest candor and advice, no matter how uncomfortable this may become for either party. But, all too often, mentorship becomes an exercise in career cheerleading rather than the delivery of hard truths.
A great mentor-mentee relationship is based on three tenets:
A deep bond of trust
A mentee has to believe in their heart of hearts that they want, and need, to improve and that the mentor’s only motivation is to make them better. Without that underlying psychological safety net, the relationship is doomed. As such, all mentor-mentee relationships are deeply personal as well as professional. Unlike a manager, a good mentor understands the key driving forces of the mentee’s life outside of their professional responsibilities (e.g., their spouse, dog, parents, fears, etc.), including both their assets and vulnerabilities. Likewise, a mentee is far more likely to commit if the mentor opens up about their own mistakes and weaknesses, past and present.
Helping people understand their superpowers (their exceptional skills/capabilities) is a critical step towards providing guidance. Having spent more than 20 years supervising thousands of employees, I’ve found that up-and-coming talent generally falls into two camps: those that over-index on self-confidence and under-index on self-awareness; and those that do the exact opposite.
Over-confident mentees don’t know what they don’t know. That’s where the mentor comes in. To an extent, the mentee has to be broken down before they can be built back up. Tools like 360 reviews and role-play scenarios can help them understand how they might have handled particular situations better.
Conversely, under-confident mentees don’t realize that their superpowers are far stronger than their weaknesses. In this case, the job of the mentor is make them realize they possess talents that are near impossible to teach adults (e.g., humility, compassion, inspiration, positivity), whereas their weaknesses tend to be skills (e.g., P&L management, negotiation training, management training) that are highly teachable.