A mentoring program done right can be very effective. It offers many benefits to an organization as it develops a growing, seasoned workforce, increases productivity, improves strategic planning and provides better succession planning and cost-effective training.
All of these elements are valuable to stakeholders. However, there is significant peril in the process. Mentoring is conducted with the hope that the mentee’s performance will improve more quickly than normal, thus increasing his or her contribution to the organization more quickly as well. This raised expectation creates risk.
Developing Too Fast
The maturity of a corporate leader is developed over time and is difficult to hurry. Only in a limited way can leadership development be complemented by the transfer of knowledge and direct guidance from a mentor. History is replete with proteges who came up the ranks too fast and, though rewarded by immediate success, once they assumed control, the organization suffered, in some cases to the point of collapse. For example, Alexander the Great, an ancient Macedonian emperor, had the inheritance of a successful kingdom, thriving strategies and luck. However, since he didn’t create an empire with a good succession plan, it fell apart. Why? The answer is simple; he had a well-developed ability to wage war and conquer nations but was not equipped to lead.
The danger in mentoring is not that the mentee responds and develops slowly, but that he or she develops too quickly. The status of being a mentee often leads those around him or her into making the assumption that he or she “is going places” — hinting at quick promotions, which are often soon realized. Mentors must hold back from that urge to move quickly and be sure that those they are mentoring are ready to move forward.
Mentors must assess the mentee constantly to ensure his or her emotional leadership development is adequate to the task. If not, they must be willing to slow down and allow for additional opportunity to develop leadership skills. Mentoring has to be driven by the ability of the mentee to understand leadership in a moral, philosophical sense as well as in the technical sense. Mentees must learn what it means to be a leader with responsibility for an organization. Too many times, mentors have fast-tracked people to the top and watched in dismay as a world-class organization failed because of large egos and poor leadership skills.
Applying Wisdom to the Process
So the question arises: how can a mentor know when the mentee is ready to learn the next bit of knowledge? Simply put, it is when the mentee asks for it and frames the question in such a way that the mentor knows he or she can handle the answer. As the mentor answers the question, he or she follows it with the question, “Why do you suppose it is done this way?” When the mentee’s answer is sufficient, more knowledge can then be introduced. However, if the mentee’s answer is not sufficient, the mentor should pause the program and patiently teach again the principle through examples and discussion until it is learned. Only then may the mentee be allowed to move on to greater challenges.
This thoughtful approach gives the mentee control over his or her rate of development by providing hurdles and feedback that ensures he or she has matured enough for the next step. It also gives the mentor insight that enables him or her to guide the mentee and ensure he or she will be able to handle the next position.
If the mentor and the mentee properly manage their relationship, both parties benefit. Mentors can gain the personal satisfaction of giving back; develop a legacy of personal knowledge, insight and experience; career enhancement; and earn visibility, power and prestige. At the other end, mentees receive career assistance, develop confidence, experience an increase in organizational awareness and find increased advancement opportunities.
When all is said and done, it’s not the ability alone to do the job that will make the mentee a success; it is his or her ability to do it with a focus on the larger concern of how individual performance fits into the broader context of the organization and our civilization.
Lee Bertrand is an account executive at Southern California Edison and dean of the IMA Leadership Academy. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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