Mentoring designed by Irene Hoffman from The Noun Project

Mentoring designed by Irene Hoffman from The Noun Project

It’s the ultimate life-dream: To be taken under the wing of a benevolent, all-knowing, paternal mentor, who will surface your strengths and open the doors for you into success. While mentors are a real thing, the rest of life doesn’t always work that way. Mentors have their own lives to tend outside of their protégés; their own separate goals, motivations, and perspectives. In a new piece up by Robert Sutton at the Harvard Business Review, even Sheryl Sandberg warned against taking mentor’s advice without a strong dose of salt.

Here’s a few of the points Sutton says you need to keep in mind:

Are you straying from the path that your mentor has taken?  Piles of research on “social similarity” or “similarity-attraction” effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own and a negative reaction to paths that clash with their past choices.    So if your mentor spent a year working in, say, China as part of his or her career and you are about to turn down a similar opportunity, don’t be surprised if he or she sees it as a mistake. . . 

Do your peers — and those you lead or mentor — know more about you than your mentor does?   There is a structural problem with many mentor-mentee relationships that I have implied in past writings: A large body of research shows that, in pecking orders of any kind, the people (and in, fact, animals) who have less power attended more closely to and understand those with more power than the other way around (see here and here).  This so called “asymmetry of attention” means that you probably know a lot more about your mentor (who is likely more powerful than you) than your mentor knows about you.   Consider some implications. You may be overestimating how well your mentor knows and understands you as a result (and thus putting too much faith in his or her advice).   Such asymmetry also suggests that your peers, our better yet, the people who you lead and mentor, may give you the best advice.

Read the rest of the tips here.

  • Hilary JM Topper, MPA

    Funny that you posted this. I have a post coming out this week about how I mentored students at Baruch College. First off, I don’t think the role of the mentor is to tell the student what to do. Our role is to experience share, not give advice. Also, with limited time these days, it’s a blessing that there are people who want to help others succeed.

    • Sasha

      Mentors are definitely needed and when you have one, it’s a lucky spot to be in for sure. This is more about making sure you’re not putting that mentor on an absolute pedestal and being aware of their humanness too.

  • Jocelyn Aucoin

    Mentoring relationships, like any relationship, is at its best when symbiotic.

    • Megan Rene Burkett

      Give and take- be open to the learning process. Well put Joce!

  • PRagmaticGuy2

    I’d suggest reading Keith Ferrazzi’s book, Who’s Got Your Back? It turns the mostly mainstream idea of mentoring coaching on its ear and suggests that you build a network of people who know you well and what your goals are and have them form an inner circle to not let you fail in your big goals. It’s a give-give relationship where you also provide something to members of your inner circle. While it may not be for everyone, I’ve found Keith’s ideas more useful than the formal mentoring program I participated in (my company used the services of Menttium – an org that specializes in managing corporate mentorship). I saw inclusion in the program as simply a recognition that my employer valued me as an employee (of which I was thankful).

    The actual mentoring program wasn’t that useful to me. Menttium gave the normal caveat that the program is only as useful as the time and effort that you put into it. I didn’t find that their matching process was good at all. They were trying to match people that were temperamentally very different, several of whom had never met before. We also got a half day intro to the “mentoring process” where they go thru some personality typing exercises and pull in some dated pop psychology.

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