Want to accelerate your career? Start by building a mentor-mentee relationship. Find a good mentor – someone who has knowledge and experience to help you grow, who is willing to spend time with you and give you honest feedback, and who is invested in you and your success. Often, but not always, mentors are leaders in your own workplace. 

A mentor is not the same as a coach. Coaches are professional helpers who usually work with a variety of leaders across different companies and industries. We often use psychological assessment tools to help our clients understand themselves, and we charge for our services. Mentors offer their support and expertise for free. 

Tips for building a mentor-mentee relationship

If you are lucky enough to have a mentor, here are some tips from a recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business on how to make the most of this valuable relationship:

  • Take responsibility for making the relationship great. Identify your objectives and discuss them with your mentor so you’re both on the same page. 
  • Be open to suggestions from your mentor. Ask for feedback and consider it seriously. Your mentor may suggest activities which are outside your comfort zone but could build your leadership skills. Say yes if you possibly can.   
  • Be persistent and available. Senior executives have busy schedules and are often in high demand as mentors. So take the initiative to schedule meetings and be flexible and available.
  • Invite your mentor to be your sponsor. Let him or her know about openings you are interested in. Seek his or her help to broaden your network and increase your visibility.

If you are the mentor, here are some tips:

  • Take the initiative. Look for talented people in your organization whom you could help and offer to be their mentor.
  • Be concrete. Provide practical suggestions and opportunities, and promote your mentee’s talents.
  • Provide meaningful feedback. That means feedback that is intelligent, honest, and kind.

In his recent book, Wisdom@Work, Chip Conley coined the term “mentern,” a combination of “mentor” and “intern.” Conley uses the word to describe the role of a seasoned executive who goes to work in a fast-paced tech company. On one hand, the mentern can provide perspective and wisdom that comes from years of thoughtful reflection on what makes a business work well. But on the other hand, the mentern must be open and curious about the swiftly-changing world of IT. Successful menterns combine confidence in their knowledge with humility about what they don’t know. For a charming fictional example of a great mentern, check out the movie The Intern, which illustrated what a good team boomers and millennials can make.

Understanding gender’s role in mentor-mentee relationships

I can’t conclude a discussion about mentorship without touching on the issue of gender. Some people are concerned that male executives should not mentor women because of the risk that the men will be accused of sexual impropriety. Here’s what I think about that:

  • By avoiding mentorship relationships with women, a leader increases another kind of risk. His business results may be damaged because he is not fully leveraging the talents and skills of his female colleagues. He may lose talented employees who will go where they see more opportunities for advancement. And he will miss out on opportunities to learn from his female colleagues.
  • I know for a fact that women sometimes make false accusations of sexual misconduct. I think that is absolutely vile behavior. It can damage or destroy a man’s career, and it reduces the credibility of women who are telling the truth. Men who engage in professional relationships with women do indeed take the risk that they may face such an accusation.
  • A leader can reduce this risk by acting impeccably — respecting the boundaries of his female colleagues and consistently treating them with the same respect and friendliness that he extends to his male colleagues. 
  • Being a business leader is about evaluating risk. If protecting his own hide against the unlikely event of a false accusation is more important to an executive than maximizing the skills and talents of his entire team, he’s not doing a very good job of assessing risk.   

In a 2005 study by the Learning and Development Roundtable, executives were asked to rank the effectiveness of a variety of leadership development practices. “Coaching provided by the leader’s direct manager” (in other words, mentorship) was ranked most effective — above job rotations, action learning, 360-degree feedback, professional coaching, and many others. Mentorship matters. Let’s do it right.

If you want to learn more about how to build relationships between mentors and mentees, email me at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com.

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