One of the biggest keys to success in any career is mentorship. Research over the last 30 years suggests that finding the right mentor can serve as a true lever for career success. In HR, the role of mentoring can be absolutely pivotal in preventing faux pas and learning the virtues of leadership and navigation, a core competency. Each time I think of mentorship I recall the impact my mentors have had and key incidents where I learned the most.
Take for example one of the greatest lessons learned from my graduate mentor, Vish Viswesvaran. I was early in my career as an industrial-organizational psychologist and had run into some political issues with the graduate student director who considered me a rabble rouser using uncommon instructional methods. Vish modeled the means for effective negotiation without stepping on any toes.
In later years I encountered several mentors and each imparted knowledge leaving me with a good understanding of what makes the right mentor. During that same stretch I have also seen numerous colleagues have mentoring relationships that fizzled out or drew to an unsuccessful conclusion. This prompted me to identify three tips for finding the right mentor and getting the most from this relationship:
Find a mentor who wants success more than you. Often mentors seek protégés who are driven. The reason is they don’t want to take on projects that fail to yield results. I can think of one example in my days as a mentor where my protégé couldn’t tell what she wanted for herself.
My protégé didn’t have any idea what success should look like for her. Ultimately, this was because she worked with other mentors who thought success was satisfaction with the relationship rather than ensuring high performance. Smiley faces matter but not as much as delivering high quality work and continuous development. I never had a protégé who thanked me for a great time. I’ve had several protégés thank me for showing them how to attain their objectives.
Find a mentor who isn’t threatened by you. I will never forget one mentor at a prestigious research firm I’d joined just months before. This person was the most productive senior staff member and had a great reputation for making newbies highly productive. One day my predecessor protégé came into my office and said, “Remember that eventually the egg timer will sound off.” I looked at him and shook my head pretending to know what he meant. Fast forward three years and my mentor had taught me how to write winning proposals, to engage in meaningful research, and to develop critical work relationships. Then, the egg timer went off! I had won a prestigious research contract with the Mayo Clinic cultivated in partnership with a great colleague. This set my mentor off. He even shared that it was now time for me to “fend” for myself. My success was not shared by my mentor. Moreover, he saw it as a threat and even undermined me to other senior staff. Several heated discussions and an awkward mea culpa email later I had learned to avoid the insecure mentor. This experience taught me to invest in my protégés and to understand that their success speaks volumes about the mentorship I offered. Their continued success served as a testament to my success as a mentor and helped me learn from them more and more every day. (Small tip—use referrals to pick your mentor).
Find a mentor who understands your motivation. Mentors have a funny way of showing you they understand you. They learn quickly what gets your juices flowing. For me, the best mentorship relationships have all centered on two questions—what motivates you to work and how do you learn? I will never forget the time I tried to mentor someone using unconventional methods for teaching effective communication. Specifically, I had a protégé who didn’t know that “Sup!” was an inappropriate greeting for our most influential stakeholder. Don’t get me wrong. I understand there’s a time and place for this. I’m just not sure saying that to the CEO during a project review meeting is the best idea. I asked my protégé if he would like to learn the most effective ways of communicating with others. I tried by scripting some appropriate language for communicating with stakeholders but a few months later we were meeting with HR professionals trying to learn what makes them successful and he did it again only this time it wasn’t “Sup” but “Sup y’all!” I racked my brain wondering how to impart this knowledge. Eventually, I stumbled upon a technique calling for impromptu role play exercises. After only a few exercises, he understood what appropriate greetings sounded like. Oddly enough, the only way I greet him today is “Sup y’all!” as a gentle reminder that he should never forget this lesson.
At the end of the day, mentorship success is about the fit between you and your mentor. Without a proper fit, you might as well forget about becoming an effective leader or navigating your way through your organization. Tell me about your experiences with mentors or mentoring. How did you make it work? How did you determine success? What tips do you have for others seeking successful mentorship? How did you avoid the egg timer going off?