Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Excel and You Will Get a Mentor"

I've heard talk about the importance of mentorship(advice) and sponsorship(advocacy on one's behalf) to professional development and career progression for over 25 years.  Too often it takes the form of advice to new graduates or early career staff to "get yourself a mentor".    Well intentioned staff, following this seemingly sound advice then approach some senior person with the "Will you be my mentor?" question.  Few things are more uncomfortable to a senior person than to have this question posed from someone they don't know at all or have a superficial relationship with.  I've seldom seen these forced connections work.

As Sheryl Sandberg points out  Lean In "The strongest relationships spring from a real and often earned connection felt by both sides"...and later "Intuitively people invest in those who stand out for their talent and who can really benefit from help."   She devotes an entire chapter to this subject of mentoring and sponsorship in her book. Although there are special issues with women on this subject, like many other points in her book, there excellent insights  on this subject for all leaders. 

The point is, the relationship comes first, followed by mentoring and/or sponsorship.  When I reflect on my own successful mentoring relationships of the last fifteen years they have all fallen into the category of me choosing to "invest in those who stand out for their talent" or "who can really benefit from help".  One particularly satisfying case involved a young man who I believed was especially talented in a specialty field.  I was able to both mentor and sponsor to the degree he replaced me in a role nine years after we first met.  I obviously don't take credit for his success...his talent and hard work have driven his success.  I am pleased to have identified his talent early on and played a small role in his career progression.  More recently I heard from a former colleague who has been selected for a prestigious international assignment...a role he would not have sought without my encouragement more than two years ago.  In yet another case I was able to help a young woman reflect on some of her own behaviours...and her underlying improve her performance I got an email from her three years after our interactions thanking me for my guidance and stlling me how important it was to her current success.   More recently, I've been working with a disabled US serviceman who is striving to improve his leadership skills in the private sector.  In all four of these cases, which I consider to be successful mentoring relationships, they came from a pre-existing relationship that "morphed" into mentoring.  In a couple of other cases, I ended up with mentoring relationships as a result of my role doing assessments and coaching in formal leadership programs.  I also did a fair amount of "peer mentoring" for experienced hires entering our company from another company culture.  In fact, in none of those cases would any of us have necessarily classified it as was a natural progression of things we were already doing together.

On the other side of the ledger I accepted a request to be a mentor from someone with whom I only had a superficial relationship...and it was always difficult....despite the best intentions on both of our parts.  We were in different countries, but only one time zone apart and had infrequent face to face contact. Plus she was in a different career field.  I'm not sure either one of us got as much as hoped out of the interaction.  I also participated in formal mentoring matches with new graduates...they were sort of ok...I hope they helped staff make the transition to a specific company culture but the relationships didn't stick.

To summarize my own experiences as a leader, all of my strongest mentoring relationships reinforce the point Ms Sandberge makes in her book...they came "from  a real and often earned connection felt by both sides"  Yes, mentoring and sponsorship are important. Instead of encouraging young staff to "find a mentor and you will be successful" we should be telling them "Excel and you will get a mentor".   

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