Excerpt from Careers Unplugged: Essential choices for a great career (Published by Blue Toffee, 2007, available on Amazon)

Written by Meena Thuraisingham, BSc Hons (Psych), Founder and Principal, TalentInvest


Despite being rated as one of the top 5 most powerful development experiences by successful leaders polled by the Center for Creative Leadership, mentoring remains largely misunderstood.

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

This excerpt explores the 6 most common myths that stand in the way of impactful mentoring relationships and will help organisations and individuals optimise the value of such partnerships.

Before exploring these myths, a clearer definition of the mentor may be useful.  The role of mentor and coach are often used interchangeable but they are distinct roles. A mentor is typically someone who has been in that role before and has had benefit of role experience. Madeleine Albright for example mentored Hilary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice well because she understood the role of Secretary of State, having served successfully in that role, producing 2 equally successful Secretaries of State that followed her. Mentoring is a partnership, more nuanced than the master-apprentice one it is often cast as. The partnership can exist between equally talented and experienced individuals, characterised by the reflection and learning required to facilitate personal and professional development of the person being mentored; So it is conceivable for a experienced Group CFO to coach an equally experienced Divisional CEO aspiring to grow into a Group CEO in time.

Mentors provide non-judgmental support, encouragement and wise counsel required to better fulfil one’s career or personal potential. It may either be on a one-off or continuing basis – just one compelling insight shared in a corridor conversation can be pivotal in changing one’s worldview. We have all remembered those ‘moments of truth’. In personal life a parent or a trusted friend with different life experience can provide invaluable mentoring too.

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 be happy to go. They often provide important insight such as an ‘aha’ experience, helping 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.

In our work with companies we hear 3 complaints regularly from mentors are: the mentee lacks clarity about what they hope to get from the partnership; the mentee is unable to articulate clearly the specific challenges they are experiencing so that help can be better targeted; the mentee feels uncomfortable to reveal their vulnerabilities so they can be better supported.

The 3 most common complaints we hear from focus groups of those being mentored are: encountering a mentor who they feel is unable to see or step into their world, standing in a world that has already passed; a mentor who they feel does not listen deeply; a mentor who takes on an advice giving role (didactic), even a rescuing role.

The 6 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 high potential executives. While companies do play a role in facilitating critical relationships to form, in general mentoring relationships initiated by the individual (needing the mentoring) are likely to be better targeted than those organised for by the company for a couple of reasons. Such programs will have limited longer term value if the individual is paired with a mentor they do not believe they can learn from. First the individual knows their signature strengths and development needs better and second they are likely to have a sense of how they best learn from others. The difference in learning preferences/styles 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 apply insights passed on. Some of the best mentoring partnerships 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, inserting some structure into the relationship may be useful. Discussions can then be 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: Anyone is capable of being mentored

It is part of the human condition to believe that your good fortune was down to your efforts and that your setbacks and stumbles were just bad luck or due to external factors outside ones’ control. One’s propensity to own one’s actions and outcomes, our openness to learning and our ability to reflect on ‘creative causes’ can determine the value we get from mentoring interactions. Someone who is action biased and looks to their mentor for solutions may not get as much value from such interactions as would someone who has well-honed inquiry and listening skills. When a mentee walks away from a mentoring partnership or allows such a partnership to fizzle out, the reasons for its failure may lie with the person being mentored rather than the mentor.

Myth #3: It is important that there is personal chemistry with a mentor

Most people gravitate to or are drawn to mentors that are similar to them. The problem with this, however, is that it does not necessarily result in one’s thinking being challenged. The most successful mentoring partnerships are often between people who may not be as comfortable in each other’s company. The mentor may value something the mentee may not value, the mentor may think in ways that the mentee has not learned to think with, the mentor may operate with a style that is alien to the mentee, the mentor may process their experiences in a profoundly different way to the mentee. The best mentors are those who have challenged your thinking, have held the mirror up and given us tough but truthful messages – messages that others may have been reluctant to give.

Whether a relationship feels comfortable or not is not the key. The key is how committed the mentor is to the success of the person they are mentoring. This is easy to spot. It is care and attention the mentor applies to the task, making sure every conversation counts and the quality of follow through beyond that conversation.

The mentor should also be cognisant of how the mentee normally learn. For example a mentee that intuits his or her way through complex challenges will learn differently from someone who is an analytical deductive thinker. Mentors, in tune with these differences will contextualise the contribution they make in a way that will optimise personal learning and development.

Myth #4: Mentoring is a one on one partnership or 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 a personal board. People making up this board will have one thing in common: wanting you to succeed.

Such an advisory board may be made up of:

  • A customer or client perspective that is unbiased
  • An functional expert in an area that you need to strengthen e.g. a regulator or a macro-economist
  • A previous line manager who is familiar with your strengths and development needs
  • 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 an executive finds themselves in a new or different setting (new industry, new sector, new geography etc.), where past knowledge and expertise may not be relevant, creating an advisory board and meeting regularly with all or some of the board can be of significant help in keeping the executive grounded during a challenging transition. Tapping into the collective wisdom of such a group is often more powerful than tapping into individually generated insights because it provides a unique breadth and more lateral thinking often absent in deeply silo’d organisations. The mentee will be able to draw from the collective wisdom and experience of those who have navigated successfully through complex and ambiguous environments in diverse ways.

Myth # 5: Mentors help open doors to advance your career

Most people think of mentors as people who can open doors for them in order to advance career prospects. If this is the help the mentee needs, then it is not a mentor they need but a well-chosen career network – people who have access to or know where the best career opportunities are, not only in the visible job market but in the invisible job market.

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. Some of the ways in which mentors can make a difference include:

  • Providing knowledge of how systems and processes work, both internal and external to the organisation
  • Helping to clarify one’s values and what matters most
  • Adding technical competence
  • Enabling growth in character and development of one’s moral compass
  • Supplying knowledge of how to behave in a social setting that is unfamiliar
  • Assisting in understanding the exploring paradoxes
  • Helping to recognise what may be holding them back from living to their full potential
  • Providing support in making some choices about work-life balance
  • Helping to understand how to get things done in or through the organisation, or through others.

Your career advancement is your responsibility, not the responsibility of mentors

 Myth #6: Mentors have more seniority than the people they mentor

 Mentors can come from the most unlikely places. Early in one’s career as a plant engineer one may find an experienced maintenance operator a reliable source of on-going information about where the major safety vulnerabilities are. As a sales director one 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. A store manager walking the floor and engaging an experienced check out operator from time to time may find 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 get more complex, knowledge becomes an increasingly important commodity but also becomes more quickly out of date. Technology advances have democratised knowledge and made the ownership of knowledge less hierarchical. There is little point in picking a mentor experienced in a world that has already passed. 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 and tap into new and fresh sources of real insight. Reverse mentoring can became a powerful resource, as can Peer-to-Peer learning circles, something a number of progressive companies are discovering as strategies to unlock fresh and new insight, and recognise disruptive changes before they happen.

 In conclusion….

Think about mentoring as a proxy for experience – a way of accessing wider and deeper pools of knowledge and insight for personal and professional growth. Challenge all you know or understand about mentors and rethink your strategy about how you can optimise organisational learning as well as personal learning and development in an increasingly disruptive environment.

For more on these ideas contact meena@talentginvest.com.au

TalentInvest helps organisations evaluate and strengthen their mentoring programs and helps mentors develop their contributions in more effective ways


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