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).

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