Listen my son, and get wisdom. The one who ignores instruction is a fool.–Proverbs
I have had very few opportunities to sit under the tutelage of a mentor. What I have gained, I absorbed on my own. In fact, I have longed for a successful mentoring relationship at various stages in my life. How nice it would have been to call upon the nurturing influence of a true professional. Unfortunately, most of my business life has been spent making it up as I go along; being thrown into the deep end, and hoping I swim rather than sink. While this may have helped me develop resilience, it did not guide my decision-making or teach me to avoid pitfalls.
So how would I picture the perfect mentoring relationship?
—My mentor would recognize that my skillset may not be the same as his, and would look for ways to maximize my talents for the benefit of the company.
This is not to say that one cannot learn new skills, but each of us brings different innate abilities to the table. For example, I am not a natural salesperson but my first boss had that talent in spades. My skills were in other areas. So when we clashed, it was mostly because I was not more like him. A true mentor will recognize that we are not all cut from the same cloth, and that we need to use our gifts in the best way that advances the organization’s cause.
—My mentor would provide ongoing opportunities for me to watch him “in action.”
More than just a one-week orientation, the true mentor seeks opportunities for the mentee to observe “how it’s done” over time. The learning should be continual. Often, new skills are more caught than taught, so it is critical to see the new employee’s presence in meetings and projects as preparing them for future leadership.
—My perfect mentor would give me a broad range of assignments, and not a narrow list of repetitive functions.
How else does one discover in which areas the mentee’s true gifts are found? Rather than giving them repetitive “grunt” work, the mentor makes intentional efforts to find a broad range of tasks to learn what they do well–and not so well.
—My mentor would hold me accountable, and yet not discourage me with dwelling on my failures.
This delicate balance can be handled with what I call “gentle accountability.” It differs from harsh judgment from the standpoint that it seeks to help the employee learn and grow rather than feel belittled. It is corrective in the most positive sense through dealing honestly with shortcomings, not overlooking them, but seeking a way to reach the goals that have been set.
—My ideal mentor would come alongside my efforts and offer counsel without micromanaging assignments.
Knowing the time to inject guidance and when to back off is a challenge that many parents face in raising children. The same can be said in mentoring an employee. One wants to see them succeed as a result of their choices, but when an employee shows signs of heading down the wrong path, it is equally important to intervene. Early in my career, I produced and directed a major video production that spanned an entire year. With the enormity of the project, I needed an experienced voice to remind me when the scope was exceeding the customer’s investment. Thankfully, I received wise counsel at the right times.
As potential mentees, we all need someone who can offer a differing, yet encouraging point of view. One day when the roles are reversed, just remember the valuable lessons learned from your mentor—who may have been a little less than perfect.