Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mentoring mistakes

Time to read this post: 6 minutes.

“Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.” – Yoda

My first mentor chat was intimidating. It was week one in my new graduate job in strategy consulting when I met my officially assigned mentor. After shaking my hand, he looked at his watch and announced “I’ve got eleven minutes, let’s make it quick” and we marched across Trafalgar Square to a coffee shop that he liked. I don’t remember much about our conversation or the coffee but he said something that I’ve always remembered. “Look I’ve got two pieces of advice on how to succeed at your job. First, if you ever drive to a client in a rental car, always put the rental car receipt and papers in the passenger side glove compartment; that way you always know where they are even if you are in a rush to return the car. And second..” he raised his eyebrows “…don’t ever fuck up”.

Now this was memorable though not especially helpful advice. Since then I’ve had my fair share of advisors (some incredible, some…well not so much). In this post I want to describe three common mistakes that I see young professionals make with regard to mentoring.

Mistake 1: Searching for ‘the one’. Obi Wan. Mr Miyagi. Dumbledore. Watching movies and reading fiction gives us the deep impression that we should be seeking some Gandalf-like figure in our professional lives. They will pop-up occasionally in our work to pass on sage wisdom. Whispering pithy guidance in our ear, we will go on to triumph & glory. We expect mentors to speak like Yoda. Instead we end up having coffee with an exhausted executive who it turns out has a couple of good ideas and a bunch of neuroses. We expect one person to embody everything we want to become, advise on all areas of our work and life and then it turns out instead we’ve been paired with a human being instead. How unfair.

So instead of seeking one perfect mentor, I strongly advocate getting a “Board of Advisors”. Seek out a selection of mentors who can offer guidance on a specific topic. Want great advice on work-life balance, career goals, navigating politics, professional growth, building a network, influencing senior management? It’s unlikely that you will find one genius that gives you everything.Mr Good To Great Jim Collins writes about finding seven tribal elders who can acts as your Personal Board of Directors. He reflects:

“The best personal boards contain a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives. Members of my own personal board have come from many walks of life—an expert on personal creativity, a founder of a corporation, a fellow professor of entrepreneurship, a former Vietnam POW, and a public servant. Personal-board members should not be selected primarily for their ability to help you attain success in your business. Every board member should pass this litmus test: "If I were in a totally different profession or business—indeed, if I were not in business at all—would I still have this person on my board?"

Mistake 2: Needing to make it official: Senior executives I have spoken to say that they fear the junior employee who asks them to be their mentor. They worry that they don’t have the time, that it will involve having to go for long dinners in trendy places with loud music. They’d prefer to be playing tennis, or spending time with their friends & family.

Some of the best mentoring I have had has been in the backs of taxis, during small talk at the end of work meetings and at friend’s weddings at drinks before the long dinner. The other person probably doesn’t see it as mentoring, just a friendly conversation with a young face. The key here is to remember to ask for informal advice. Try this: “In your experience, what mistakes do you see people like me make?” or how about “What career advice to you have for someone like me?”. They might pause, think and then come up with a couple of gems. I did this last week to a very senior executive and he quipped “you rise and fall to the level of your peers”. I found this rather profound and helpful. Cultivating unofficial mentors is the way to go.

Mistake 3: Confusing Mentors and Sponsors. I just finished “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” by Herminia Ibarra in the September 2010 of HBR. It’s a goodie. While the article focuses on differences between the mentoring that men and women get, the key insight is that there is a big difference between a ‘Mentor’ and a ‘Sponsor’. Mentors offer “psychosocial” support for personal and professional development, plus career help that includes advice and coaching. On the other hand, sponsors actively advocate for your advancement. They give protégés exposure to other executives, they make sure their people are considered for promising opportunities and challenging assignments. I had a housemate who went to work for Price Waterhouse Coopers, in his first year the PWC office head took him aside and said “I see a lot of me in you. You could run this place in due course. I’d like to help you.” Now the office head might have said that to everyone who started but I don’t think so. Now that’s a sponsor. Do you have anyone who is actively fighting for you?

So back to my coffee in Trafalgar Square. I asked him if he had any other advice. He said, “sure, succeeding at work is 10% about knowing how to do your job, it’s 40% about doing it fast & getting it right first time; and it’s 50% about getting on with people”. As I look back over the last twelve years, I think he might have been right. Not Yoda, but still better than trying to figure it out on my own.
Tough questions
- Who are the top seven people who could be on your Personal Board of Directors?
- What question can you plan to ask senior people who you respect?
- Do you have a sponsor who has your back and fights on your behalf?

And finally:
"Well, as an older mentor figure, the most likely scenario is that I'd return only to be randomly killed by an enemy of yours so that you can cradle my dying body while swearing revenge — so don't take it personally if I say that I sincerely hope we never cross paths again." — Julio Scoundrél, The Order of the Stick

1 comment:

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