Written by Meena Thuraisingham, BSc Hons (Psych),

Author of Careers Unplugged; Director and Principal, TalentInvest

Despite being rated among the top 5 most powerful development experiences by successful leaders (in a seminal study by the Corporate Leadership Council), mentoring remains largely misunderstood.

Through time, mentors have played profound roles and had significant impact on the careers and lives and careers of those they mentored – this is as true of the corridors of political power, on the sports field, the entertainment industry as it is in the boardroom.

Mentoring relationships should work better than they do. This is largely a consequence of our narrow understanding of the nature and process of mentoring.  There are 5 common myths that stand in the way of impactful  mentoring relationships.

In order to uncover these myths, it will be useful to start with a common defintion.  A Mentor is anyone who provides non-judgmental support and encouragement in one’s career or personal life on either a one-off or continuing basis. They are typically a person with greater experience, expertise, insight and wisdom, counselling, teaching and guiding another person. It can be found in the personal as well as professional arena. In fact a mentor could be a parent or even a trusted friend. It can be anyone in your life who, through his/her deeds and work with you, helps you to move towards fulfilling your potential.

A mentor engages in empathetic listening – even ‘walking’ in your shoes for a while to develop deeper understanding of your context.  A good mentor will challenge as much as support – challenging views of life and career, testing assumptions about goals and barriers, and stretching one’s thinking, beyond where one would typically go. They often provide important insight such as an ‘aha’ experience which allows you to understand properly the meaning of an event, a person or something inside yourself or provide you a quote or metaphor that has great significance for you and influences your thinking or behaviour.

 The 5 Myths

Myth #1 Mentoring is best company initiated and organised

It is increasingly common for companies to develop a formal mentoring program and designate mentors for their talented employees.  While companies do play a role in facilitating critical relationships to form, in general mentoring relationships initiated by you are likely to be better targeted than those organized for you by your company for a couple of reasons. Such programs will have limited longer term value if you are paired with a mentor that you do not believe you can learn from.  First you know your signature strengths and development needs better and second you are likely to have a sense of how you best learn from others. The difference in learning preferences of individuals makes a mentor good for one individual but not necessarily for another.

Whatever the structure, really effective mentoring comes from the giving nature of the mentor and the receptiveness of the mentee to absorb, digest and use the lessons of experience.  Some of the best mentoring relationships are those that have evolved over time as the mentee slowly becomes aware of how important a given intervention has become in his/her life. In such a situation you may want to insert some structure into the relationship, so that discussions are front-ended by clear learning goals and back-ended with a review of progress (understanding, insights and skills you have gained) to ensure that best use is made of the time spent together.  Overly structured mentoring programs do not generally work well.

Myth # 2: It is important that there is personal chemistry with a mentor

The best mentor may not be someone you may feel fully comfortable with or who thinks like you.  Most people nevertheless gravitate to mentors that are similar to them.  The problem with this, however, is that it does not necessarily result in your thinking being challenged or at least provide you an opportunity to expose yourself to a different ‘world view’. The best mentors are those who regularly challenge your thinking and judgements in order to help you build better solutions to the challenges you face, including providing you with messages you may not want to hear.

One thing that is common to all good mentoring relationships, whether or not you feel entirely comfortable, is that the mentor cares deeply about your success.  It wont take you long to work this out yourself.

The mentor should be cognizant of how you normally learn.  This is best done by sharing with your mentor insights you have about yourself (self perception), beliefs that have shaped how you approach business issues and your learning preferences. If you have a recent 360 feedback report take the opportunity to share that with the mentor.

Myth #3: Mentoring is a one on one relationship

Contrary to the common view, mentoring need not be a one-on-one intervention; it can take place in a group setting.  For example, an interesting variation on the idea of mentoring is to use an advisory or a personal board of directors.  People making up this board will have one thing in common: wanting you to succeed but more importantly they provide you a 360 degree view of the world.

Such an advisory board may be made up of:

  • A customer or client perspective that is unbiased
  • A regulator’s advice that is sound
  • A peer whom you can trust and admire and who has travelled the road that you are now travelling
  • A personal coach, or someone with a professional understanding of how a leader learns and grows
  • A peer within the company who has strengths you feel you will need going forward and who takes the role of your mentor.

In particular, when you find yourself in a new or different setting (new industry, new sector, new geography etc) where past knowledge and expertise may not be enough, creating an advisory board and meeting regularly with all or some can be of significant help in keeping you grounded during a challenging time. You will be able to draw from the collective wisdom and experience of those who have navigated successfully through complex and ambiguous environments before you.

 Myth # 4: Mentors help you open doors to advance your career

Most people think of mentors as people who can open doors for them.  If this is what you need, then it is not a mentor you need. You need someone who is networked well who provides you with useful connections.

Mentors play a more profound role. A good mentor may do nothing more than put a mirror up to you and show you clearly what is holding you back. Here are some of the ways in which mentors have made a difference to those who have used them:

  • Providing knowledge of to navigate complex political terrain
  • Helping to clarify your values and what matters most to you
  • Adding technical competence
  • Enabling growth in your character strengths and development of your moral compass
  • Supplying knowledge of how to behave in a social setting that is unfamiliar to you
  • Assisting in understanding the world around you
  • Helping to recognize what may be holding you back from living to your full potential
  • Providing support in making some choices about work-life balance
  • Helping to understand how to get things done in or through the organization, or through others.

Your career advancement is your responsibility not the responsibility of mentors. Over-relying on a mentor to help advance your career is unwise.

Myth #5: Mentors have more seniority than the people they mentor

Mentors can come from the most unlikely places. Early in your career as a plant engineer you may find an experienced maintenance operator a reliable source of on-going information about where the major safety vulnerabilities are. As a sales manager you may find the fresh insights of a ‘rookie’ sales rep a source of vital perspectives about the impact of the changing demographic of the customer base. A store manager walking the floor and engaging an experienced check out operator from time to time is a great way of tapping into insights about the market, customers and brands they would ordinarily not have access to through sales reports.

As organisations gets more complex, knowledge becomes significant an increasingly important commodity and technology becomes obsolete almost as soon as it is embedded, vital learning may come from people who are not more senior to you. In a knowledge economy, expertise, insight and wisdom is everywhere and it is incumbent on us to find innovative ways of connecting to sources of real insight.

Organisations such as BP, Proctor and Gamble, Marriot and Reuters have ‘reverse mentoring’ programs that help executives tap into new insights early and recognise changes before they happen.  These can also be organised as a group session – a facilitated Group Reverse Mentoring session. For example a cross section of diverse junior employees can provide a group of more senior executives some valuable inter-generational insight they may ordinarily not access.

Mentors are also found among trusted and capable peers. If you feel the need to develop strong strategic skills, a peer known for their strategic mind can become a valuable mentor.  Research shows that learning from peers is increasingly the preferred learning style of Gen Y who generally don’t come to the workplace without hang-ups about seniority.

Summary

Eric Hoffer once was quoted as saying “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who survive, the learned find themselves fully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists”

‘Unfreeze’ your thinking about mentors and mentoring relationships to ensure you better exploit the learning around you. Consider also how you may mentor others. By mentoring others you recognise what makes for a good mentor and the skills that you will need to develop in order to make the best of a good mentoring relationship yourself

These ideas are explored further in chapter 8 of Careers Unplugged, Smart Choices for a Great Career (2008)



Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today