Having a well-placed, successful mentor can be the difference between success and failure on the leadership track, but it is definitely more an art than a science for the mentor and the mentee.

I recently started hosting a radio show interviewing CEOs of small and mid-sized companies. One question that leaders love to talk about is “tell us about your mentors.” It turns out that very few make it to the top without mentors. Talking to all these senior leaders about their mentoring experiences, I’ve learned something else: Most senior leaders refer in glowing terms to their mentors in the past tense.

It turns out that not everyone recognizes the greatest value of mentors until after the fact. Actually, many don’t realize they’re in a mentoring relationship until years later when they’re in the mentor’s shoes. One leader referred to his mentors as “the ones that didn’t fire me when they had grounds to, but helped me succeed instead.”

Unfortunately, based on my experience with mid-level emerging leaders, I’ve also noticed that too many high-potentials — those who know the importance of mentorship — go out to “find a mentor” as though they’re checking a box without really understanding the organic, artistic aspect of mentorship. This can be exacerbated by well-meaning mentorship programs that focus on the matching science of mentorship instead of the art. For the benefit of everyone interested in learning the art of mentorship, here are three things to know.

  1. You don’t “get” a mentor, you build a mentoring relationship. Good mentorship — the kind that can really help your career — feels like a good business relationship between people with complementary experiences who help each other. Most of the best mentor/mentee relationships I know of are between people who don’t even use those terms when referring to each other. If you are an emerging leader who wants to be in a mentoring relationship, do your part to meet senior leaders in a business context where you and they can develop natural chemistry.
  2. Good mentorship goes both ways, so be prepared for give and take in the relationship. The best mentors learn from their mentees and use this insight to sharpen their own leadership and management skills. This requires that mentees be willing to “give” to the relationship (i.e., learn what your mentor values and provide it!). For example, the mentee can provide “grassroots intelligence” on business issues, corporate culture, market intelligence, etc., from a perspective the mentor doesn’t have regular access to. Mentors and mentees can also use mentoring discussions as opportunities for personal self-reflection, feedback and growth. Part of developing the relationship is learning how you can help each other.
  3. Mentors and mentees both benefit when they close the loop on advice given. Mentees need to be asking for advice on areas where they feel in need of support. Most mentees understand that. What they aren’t as good at doing is circling back to close the loop and tell the mentor what happened when they used that advice. This critical step helps mentors understand how their advice is actionable and develop further advice that’s tailored for the mentee. This “close the loop” aspect is a critical opportunity for mentees to self-reflect with the assistance of someone with insight to share. Mentors can help the mentees close the loop by remembering the advice they gave and asking how it went when they used it.

Mentees should understand that having a mentor isn’t the same as having a sponsor, who is someone who will put their reputation on the line to help you advance. Of course, mentors are good candidates to become sponsors, but mentoring and sponsoring are different, so be clear what value you’re most likely to receive from the relationship. Don’t blame a good mentor for not being a good sponsor, and visa versa.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design that integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

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One Response to “Mentorship: 3 keys to success”

  1. Dana Theus says:

    Hi Rey. Thanks for the comment. I just had one too many person say "how do I get a mentor?" and had to say something!

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