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The Mentor Who Knew Too Much

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The concept of mentoring seems simple to many.  You select, or are assigned, someone who knows more about a subject than you. Most people envision that person sitting down with you periodically, maybe in his or her office, a conference room, or maybe for lunch.

He or she shares information with you, answers your questions, and generally enlightens you to enhance your success.

In reality, although the person assigned to you may have knowledge that may be helpful to you, it doesn’t mean they will share it in effective or helpful ways.

Prescriptive advice

The style of some mentors may be inflexible. They may not make suggestions, but instead may provide their advice in no uncertain terms.  If you have a problem and approach the mentor with it, they may say, “Here’s what you need to do.  Now, go back to your desk and do it, and don’t talk to me until you’ve done it.”

They present their advice in “My way or the highway” mode without allowing you any leeway for your style or how you deal with other people.  If they suggest you confront a superior and tell them that your idea is better, they may not take into account whether you’re comfortable talking to a superior like that.

A good mentor will ask questions.  Leading questions that don’t always result in them giving advice. Instead, the questions lead the mentee to come up with a solution on their own by thinking through all of the options and making her own decision.

The collaborative approach also allows flexibility.  Many approaches may work.  A good mentor will help you come up with multiple resolutions and allow you to change directions should one of them not work out.

Related post: When Someone Needs Un-Mentoring

More interested in his/her ego than helping the mentee

Like some poor managers function, some mentors make helping the mentee a secondary option. The mentor may have a need to feel important and use the mentoring relationship to stroke his ego.

In this situation, the mentor will tell tales, sometimes Commander McBragg-style tall tales, of his great successes and accomplishments.  There may be a glimmer of advice or even a moral to the story, but it’s often strictly coincidence.  The mentor has no intention of teaching you a lesson other than how amazing he is.

A better mentor will tell just the opposite.  They want you to learn from their mistakes, so they will tell you about the embarrassing times they screwed up, the consequences they dealt with, what they learned from it, and what they hope you learn from it. The good mentor may even ask you what you learn from their story before they share their own learning.

An ulterior motive

Some mentors may guide you in a direction that best serves their own purposes.  In some offices, there may be two camps on how to perform a process.  Let’s say Mary wants it done one way and Steve wants it to be another way.  They both know that the most widely adapted approach will become the de facto standard.  It would be in Steve’s best interest to mentor people and tell them his way is the company standard.

Good mentors are good team players. They teach their mentees to be good team players. If there are two process approaches vying to become a company standard, the good mentor will show her mentees both approaches and allow them to select the approach they prefer.

See related post: How to Be Mentored

Conclusion

Just because someone knows mathematics doesn’t mean they can teach it. In the same way, someone who knows more about a business area than you doesn’t mean they will make a good mentor.  All advice is optional and no mentor should require a mentee to follow their advice.

People who want a mentor should have multiple mentors.  It allows the mentee to get advice from multiple points of view and select the one that fits best with the mentee’s style.

If you ever find yourself stuck with a mentor who knows (or thinks he knows) too much, it may be best to turn to someone else for advice.

That’s just my advice on the subject.  I recommend you run it by someone else also.

If you would like to learn more about mentoring between Millennials and Baby Boomers, get Lew and Jeff’s book The Reluctant Mentor on Amazon.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.