Right and wrong ways to mentor

Too much of a good thing can backfire

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

I love mentoring. Maybe too much. At its best, mentoring gives everyone something. You help high-potential employees come into their own. Give them encouragement, share a little experience and presto!—you get a more knowledgeable, motivated worker. In return, you learn more about what makes people tick and strengthen your bonds with the folks in your organization.

But mentoring goes bad if you do it the wrong way. Jealousies can erupt. Your advice can turn into orders. And employees might stop thinking for themselves.

Spread your wisdom equally

About five years ago, a management consultant told me to pick a handful of promising managers and become their mentor. He said that by building a closer relationship with the future leaders of the company, I could pass along my knowledge to those who could profit from it the most. Was he ever wrong.

I selected three managers to mentor out of maybe 20. I wound up spending lots of time with each of them, taking them to lunch and inviting them to my home. Word got around about these “chosen ones,” and that made other managers resentful.

So I started mentoring a few more people. Then a few more. My schedule became crazy. All my free time was spent with this ever-growing corps, and I had trouble giving each of them my full attention.

You’ll know your mentoring is getting out of hand when people start using you as a shrink. A guy would complain to me about his wife and kids. He’d get expansive and start speculating about the meaning of life. We’d talk about business in a lofty, philosophical way.

Narrow the scope

In time, I decided to scale down the intense one-on-one relationships. Now I try to be everyone’s mentor. That lets me learn more and help employees with specific problems. It works better than advising a few people about big-picture stuff. We’ll discuss a concrete issue: how to manage time better, what career track makes the most sense, how to approach a high-risk project.

Set a lecture-free zone

Some employees expect mentors to tell them what to do and make tough decisions for them. They don’t want to do the heavy lifting.

I refuse to lecture people. Sometimes I hear myself starting to say, “You’re missing the point.” That’s when I stop and say something like “You may want to approach this from another angle.”

If you know the right answer, you’ll want to give it away. Don’t. Like a good teacher, guide the student to figure it out.

“Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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