Nearly all effective and successful leaders have had significant
mentoring at key points in their life and career. As a result mentoring
ought to be a high agenda for the ambitious. But most of the time when
businesspeople talk about mentoring, the conversation is largely about
the mentor, not about the mentee. In this blog, I’d like to flip the
conversation and talk about what makes for a truly successful mentee.
After all, mentoring is a two way street. Furthermore, there are some
important personal characteristics that make for being a better mentee
and for getting a lot more out of the process.
Here are 7 important characteristics of 21st century mentees:
- They understand that their network is their mentor.
Usually when people think of mentoring, what comes to mind is that they
need to find a senior manager who’ll give them time and input. Those
experiences will be few and far between. There are very few
well-rounded business people with enough experience who will also be
willing to give someone a lot of time. Business demands don’t usually
allow for that. As a result, think always of your mentor as a network
of people. Success means that you’ve found a person in your network who
can asssist you for 4 – 6 sessions with a just a couple objectives.
That’s more realistic, and you’re also more likely to find a manager
willing to give you that amount of time.
- They look for mentors who are no more than two, at the
most three levels above them. Finding a mentor is tough
enough. Getting a senior manager may well be impossible. Furthermore,
once a person is much more than two levels above you, she won’t be able
to either identify with you or your issue very well. Nor will she be
able to give you very understandable information. The further up the
ladder, the more difficult to talk with in language you’ll understand.
The higher you go, the more implicit assumptions and abstract talk.
- They set their own concrete objective. When
you get ready to talk to a potential mentor you should know exactly what
you want. Think about that, and work at it until you can write down
your objective in 8 to 12 words. One of the most important
characteristics in a persuasive proposal is that you can reduce the
entire proposal to 8 to 12 words. If you can’t do that, keep thinking
and writing until you get down to that small number of words. Single
subject, single predicate and a few adjectives or adverbs in the
sentence. After I’d talked to my protege, Liam O’Dea, and decided that
he was the one I was looking for, (yeah, I was looking for a Gen-Y
mentor) I put my objective into these few words. Here’s the deal: “I’ll
coach you if you’ll edit my material.” Count ’em. Eight words. I’m
certain I got the better deal, but he disagrees. That’s a happy
- They ask very effective questions. Although
questioning and listening are the two most basic relationship skills,
they’re both very difficult to become expert at. On numerous
occasions people have told me that I’m a very gifted questioner. I
either ignore the comment with a warm “thank you.” or give them the
straight skinny, which goes like this: “What planet are you on? I
worked my ass off putting these questions together, and I have them
right in front of me in my notes! Gift has nothing to do with it.”
(It’s always said with a smile, not a snarl.) That’s not only
enlightening, but it’s often a very effective form of coaching which few
- They have the willingness and ability to challenge
their mentor. My rule is that if a mentee is not occasionally
challenging my ideas, either I’m very boring and irrelevant or he’s
tuned out. I have a great deal of satisfaction as a result of coaching a
team yesterday for two straight hours, no potty break, etc. I had to
butt in to stop the hot conversation every 15 minutes, summarize, double
check that everyone was in agreement, and then turn them loose as they
challenged me and each other. They all viewed it as a howling success.
They did most of the challenging, not me. We came away with a terrific
set of conclusions and action objectives.
- They follow through on their commitments.
The best way to put an end to a mentor relationship is to fail to follow
through on meeting commitments. As a mentor, I expect them to come
back at the next meeting with specific examples of commitment work, to
assess in front of me what went well (and why), what needs to go better
(and why) and what they’re missing or don’t understand. No general
notions, please. Bring data in the form of highly descriptive behaviors
- They make a contribution to their mentor. As a
mentor or coach, I rarely have to ask for a contribution, doesn’t
matter how much experience or ability the other has. They stick it in
front of me. On occasion I may need to ask for a unique contribution
and it’s always there for me.
Wow! Mentoring and coaching continue to make me a highly fortunate
and unbelievably happy person with a lot of what Erik Erikson labelled
“integrity.” Integrity is the ability to look back on your
contributions and have a great deal of satisfaction about them. In the
worst of situations, (and if you’ve read my blog on my wife’s
Alzheimer’s disease, you know what I’m talking about) I continue to find
a great deal of satisfaction in life. I’ve met plenty of mentors and
coaches who will agree very strongly with that!
(FYI: Liam didn’t edit this.)