The Art and Genius of Mentoring

4 minute read

As discussed last time, mentors can help us manage performance anxiety. In fact, mentorship helps with much more than just anxiety; mentoring helps professionals at all levels do their jobs better. Mentoring is the tool we use to cover the Leadership Gap—the distance between where you are and where you want to be. Two questions determine whether a mentoring relationship is possible: Can you? And Will you?

From the mentee’s perspective, there should be a perception by the mentee that he is on one side of the Leadership Gap, and his mentor is on the other, helping him to close that gap and get to where he wants to be. The mentee asks himself, can this person help me? Will they?

Can they help me is about the mentor’s competence as a manager or leader. Is she skilled? Can she help me get the resources I need to do my job? Can she get me the training I need to grow? Can she give me information, or know where to point me if she doesn’t know the answers herself?

Will they help me is about the mentor’s motivation. Does she care about me? Does she regularly check in? Does she know where I want to go as a professional and as a person? Does she check on the congruency between me and the company/team/department? Unless she cares enough to ask me, she won’t know. This is where an internal mentor (such as one’s direct supervisor) has an edge; outside mentors may not have the insight or motivation to gauge company/employee alignment.

In lots of organizations, mentor/mentee relationships are assigned. We really don’t care for this approach, because true relationships have to evolve organically. If mid-level managers are given compassion toward one subordinate as an assignment, then compassion only matters when it’s assigned—not a good message to send.

From the mentor’s perspective, in a perfect world, the mentee should be the mentor’s supervisee. The mentor is regularly evaluating, do I trust his competency, motivation, and skills to grow? This is the question of can they?

The will they question is, is he bought into the values, mission, vision, strategies, and how to implement them? Does he like the company’s flavor of Kool-Aid? In other words, will he help the mentor meet her (performance/outcomes) goals, too? The mentor checks in with and gives the mentee resources, reinforcing the caring relationship between them. The two people are constantly asking these questions of each other—can you and will you—and there must be symbiosis.

When discussing the mentoring relationship, we often ask our clients, on a scale of 1 to 5, how strongly is your boss committed to you? When a mentee/subordinate doesn’t feel like their boss is helping them, they will either disengage and their performance will suffer, or they will go elsewhere to find another boss/mentor. As the saying goes, people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.

Ideally, supervisors should have coffee with each of their subordinates and check in once every three months. This is not supervision or a discussion of their to-do list. Rather this meeting is, how are you? How is your family? What do you think about our department? How are you doing on getting to the next level? As the relationship continues, supervisors may not need to do this quarterly, but they should do it at least twice a year.

To be clear, the manager/mentor should initiate these important check-in conversations. When the manager neglects this duty, the mentee can try to jump-start the conversation, but if the manager doesn’t take the ball and run with it, it’s time for the mentee to look elsewhere. Staying will only cause the supervisee’s disengagement.

And a side note: remember our earlier post about leadership, and that not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder. Some folks just want to do their job well until they turn 65, and then retire and buy a fishing boat. That’s ok! But even then, companies need contributors, and contributors need to know that someone in the company cares about them. Managers still need to commit to helping those folks stay strong and relevant so they can meet their goal, and those conversations still have to take place.

So what about instances in which the direct boss is not a mentor or is unwilling to be a mentor? Going to next level up may not be the answer. Seeking your boss’s boss out as a mentor can threaten that middle manager, who will then undermine you. How can you tell if your boss is threatened by you? Tune in next time for the answer!