How to Avoid Being Stuck with the Wrong Mentor

Mentoring is supposed to be a positive experience between two individuals – mentor and mentee.

Many of the organizations we work in have the best of intentions with their mentoring programs and activities. And we, as employees, are excited to know that there are leaders in our organizations which we can learn from. But sometimes the program isn’t as successful as intended.

Early in my career I encountered such a challenge. I was once involved in a formal mentoring program that was rolled out through the entire organization. At the time knowing that we had the opportunity to have managers and leaders supportive of our career development and success was exciting. However, I discovered having support and being supported were two different things.

My mentor was a very powerful and influential person in another organization. This person could provide access and exposure so other leaders could see me in action, something we can all relate to. Initially this person was fiercely loyal and protective of me which was a great fortune, or so it seemed. However, I eventually discovered this leader did not always act with the best of intentions towards others.

Sometimes this leader treated staff and even peers poorly. I asked my mentor to share with me some rationale for this. My mentor turned on me. This leader was eventually removed from their position. Unfortunately lots of careers had already been damaged and my experience as a mentee suffered. It didn’t have to be that way, if only I’d known then what I know now.

So, how can you be sure to find a mentor who really has your best interest at heart? Do your due diligence. Follow these 5 tips prior to the start of your mentoring relationship:

  1. Reputation Counts. Whether your organization has a formal or informal program, if you are looking for a mentor, take the time to get to know those leaders in your organization that you think may qualify as good mentors. Observe and ask around. Seek those managers or leaders that have a track record over time of developing people in your organization. They don’t have to be in your department or function. They will stand out irrespective of where they are in your company or what they do. Always do your “mentor homework”. Listen with intent and pay close attention to all information shared with you.
  2. Look for Success. Find the successful people in your organization. If you’re not sure then ask around. One easy way is to look at your organizational announcements focusing on who was promoted or recently took on a larger role. Another way is to consider who was just assigned a new or important project. These assignments are often based on an individual’s prior accomplishments, for example having a certain expertise led them to the organization supporting their work. Perhaps there was someone who advocated for them. Whatever the reason, seek them out, ask: who was helpful to them in achieving their success? Is anyone helping them with their ongoing development? You will likely find a very successful person behind the person you are speaking to. No one achieves success alone.
  3. Have Your List Ready. As you start talking with others, listen to the feedback that you are given. Start to develop your list of mentors. Take note of what each person has to offer, their areas of expertise, etc. By developing such a list when you need a mentor, you will have something readily available. The time to look for a mentor is before you really need one. This way when the need arises, you will be prepared. Keep in mind, some on your list may change jobs, take on other roles and responsibilities or even leave your organization. You may even outgrow the need for a certain mentor’s expertise. Keep your list updated.
  4. Know What You want. Your career goals should be clear and should go beyond just the standard, “I want to get promoted” when you are seeking a mentoring relationship. Think about what things you need a mentor to assist you with. In seeking a mentor, it is always good to share what you are trying to achieve. Is it a new skill, for example? If so, be sure it’s a skill that will help you become better equipped and ready for the next career move you desire and deserve.
  5. Communicate Clearly. Ensure you are having conversations with your manager, and others that are responsible for your success, about your goals. I told my organization what I wanted. They honored my request. Unfortunately, I didn’t share clearly what I thought a mentor could help me in with in my career development. I got stuck with a mentor who was not interested in my success. Always communicate clearly and many times, to as many people that you need to, about what you want to achieve. Have one clear message. Be consistent across all conversations lest the organization will end up being confused about your goals and development. You want a mentor that will help you grow and achieve the right success.

Here’s to your success and finding the right mentoring relationship!

I am Francine Parham. I speak and write about your career, the realities of what happens at work, and how to navigate through it successfully. I am the creator of the Career Pocket Guides™, a series of books that provide practical insights, tools, and tips to use for your career success. Look for book 1 in the series: “The Ultimate Career Pocket Guide” (available April, 2016).

Three Essentials for Getting the Edge on Your Career Development Talk


Any of these “managerial lines” sound familiar?

Manager: “The organization sees a great deal of potential in you (insert name), so we want to invest in you.”

Manager: “It’s your time…we need to develop a truly robust developmental plan for you.”

Manager: “Your development is paramount to the success of this organization.”

Manager: “Every employee in our organization should have a development plan, you are no exception, you are one of our stellar performers. “


Any of these “employee responses” sound familiar?

Employee: Head nod and a smile – No verbal response.

Employee: “Thank you.”

Employee: “That sounds great!”

Employee: “Great, how should we start?”


We’ve all heard our managers such phrases to us, whether believable or not.

The words sound great and their intentions are usually good. Often times the best of intentions fall by the wayside. More importantly, most times the manager hasn’t really thought through what s/he is really saying. It sounds good, but beyond that, there is not a lot of substance. So, therein lays the challenge.

You as the employee are no different.

Usually you aren’t expecting this type of feedback from your manager unless it is a specific time of the year in your organization. This is usually known as succession or career planning time. Even when organizations designate such time frames for these conversations, the discussions probably don’t usually end up with you being elated or prepared for such an important dialog. So, the outcome often yields missing out on a great developmental conversation between you and your manager.

As you know, your manager doesn’t own your development totally. You own it as well. You probably own it more than your manager, as it is about you. So what do you do to always be prepared irrespective of when or in what situation your manager (or anyone in your organization) wants to discuss how they want to support you in your professional development or career?

Think about in advance being ready to discuss some of the following:

Confirmation about what you are being prepared for. Most of the time, the manager is not ready to answer this and the employee more than likely doesn’t think to ask. Often career discussions turn to focusing on future training needs or what the potential next job or assignment could be. That’s an easy career conversation. A more robust discussion is one in which you are able to discuss and both clearly link all of the developmental activities that your manager and/or organization has in mind for you. In addition how this is preparing you that next opportunity that you are best suited for. Make sure you are asking your manager what the developmental work listed in your plan will help you to achieve or demonstrate when it has been completed. What will be the concrete next steps if they are accomplished successfully? Such work should be clearly preparing you for that next assignment, promotion or some critical next move in your career.

How both your manager AND the organization will your measure success. This is purely about alignment. This has nothing to do with the activity side of development and the tasks that you and your manager have agreed that you will demonstrate. The completion of all of the identified “to-dos” in your developmental plan by a certain time doesn’t mean that you have successfully mastered them. Ensure that you know what measures your manager as well as your organization uses to determine if you have achieved your development actions successfully. Many times what is on paper is not often the reality. So ask not only your manager, but others early on in the process and along the way. Make your career conversations ongoing with those that you know will have feedback about your development. Hopefully these individuals will also be the ones that will give you honest feedback. Your manager should not be the only one that you rely on or trust to weigh in on your success.

How others are viewed as successful. We all know names and titles in our companies. We also know or have an idea of who is viewed as successful. And obviously a key indicator is when there is promotional or even lateral movement that occurs. So when such an event happens use it as an opportunity to learn more by digging a little deeper. Look beyond the career progression of that person which you will undoubtedly about read in the announcement. Find out what it really took for them to get there. The easiest and best way to start is to ask them. Also ask your manager or other leaders in your organization for their perspective, especially if they know the person. This is even better if such individuals were responsible in helping that person obtain the career opportunity. If you aspire to reach that level or position, a deeper understanding helps you to decide if the role is for you or not. It also helps you start to be clearer about what you want and will do to obtain it. By taking such action then talking to you manager and others signal your career interest and again makes the career conversation more purposeful and you prepared.

Obviously, we can’t plan and control all of our career conversations. Some may be planned and some impromptu, but it pays for you to have a few thoughts and questions in advance. The more you are prepared, the better the chance you have of obtaining the outcomes you desire.


I am Francine Parham. I speak publically and write about what happens to you at work and how you navigate through it successfully. I am the creator of Career Pocket Guides™, a sequence of books that provide practical insights and guidance to specific career-related subjects to use while navigating in your job.

My first book in the series is, “The Ultimate Career Pocket Guide” (April, 2016).