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April 19, 2012
Experts Aren't Necessarily the Best Mentors
 
Be very, very careful who you target for your mentors. Especially if you’re in the early years of your career, there’s a tendency to go for the real expert; those people with a depth of experience. But that can be a serious mistake.
 
As a general rule, always add a slightly more experienced peer into your mentor and coaching network. If you’re a new manager and want management coaching, be sure to use at least one person no more than a single level above you.  
 
Why forget the expert?
I don’t mean this as a put-down, but too often the difference between an early career person and an expert mentor is similar to that between a kindergartner and a college professor who’s never had kids or taught them. The college professor has no experience putting the cookies on the bottom shelf, assumes language above the kindergartner’s vocabulary, uses abstractions instead of concrete, simple words, draws conclusions that make no sense, and offers big-picture insights that connect no dots whatsoever for the kid. He even lacks the good sense to get down on his knees and look the kindergartner in his eyes when he’s talking to him. And the child is not at the place where he can formulate relevant questions.
 
On several occasions, I’ve observed HR putting a new manager into a mentoring relationship with a smart vice-president. The relationship breaks down quickly because the mentor and mentee are reading from different sheets of music. Inevitably, the VP views the communication failure as the manager’s problem rather than his own. So he interprets the failure as lack of follow-through, motivation, intelligence, and savvy. Guess what’s just happened to that mentee’s future?
 
So, mentors can be so far removed from your day-to-day work that they are of little value to you. You want at least one or two with a little more experience than you. Those are the folk who have recently walked in your shoes and can give you relevant, practical, concrete insight into your work.
 
Build the social contract.
Once you’ve targeted a willing mentor, you want to deal with two very important issues right up front. First, lay out very specific, very concrete objectives and be certain you’ve got buy-in from your mentor. Your mentor will clarify those objectives and often modify them. It’s imperative that both of you get full agreement on the objectives.
 
At that same first meeting, start building a social contract. A social contract is not a legalistic document. It’s simply an explicit, conversational agreement of what you expect from your mentor and how you’re going to work together. Social contracts typically need to be renegotiated throughout the mentoring and coaching process. But any social contract should enable you to behave authentically and get the kind of mentoring you want and need. So you should be able to ask direct questions, find out what the mentor expects of you, probe directly into the mentor’s orientation to confidentiality, get agreement on when and how often you’ll talk with each other, even how to deal with conflicts should they arise, and when the relationship is expected to end. And if you’re really gutsy, I’d ask the mentor how you’ll get in trouble with him. Mentors typically have personal, tacit rules that they don’t share unless asked. It’s not that they’re being secretive, but simply that it never crossed their mind to let you know. And somehow, in all of this, mentees need to be effective listeners. That’s one thing that the mentor really expects.

Very often long-term relationships develop emotional connections. Nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s to be expected. But the social contract will protect both of you from future difficulties that might arise.
 
Mentoring is not only a key to organizational success; it’s also a key to personal success. If you check around, you’ll find that all top, successful leaders have been mentored. It should be no surprise that those who’ve been mentored are socialized into the organization, make more money, get more opportunities, and are promoted — all faster than other employees. So use mentoring wisely. 

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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