The great thing about developing yourself as a leader is that you don’t have to make the journey alone. There is an ancient Buddhist proverb that says: “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Loosely translated, this means that when you’re open and willing to listen, you will find the answers from someone who has been down the road before you. In the modern business world, this proverb is best defined as mentoring.
It’s easy to confuse mentoring with its popular first cousin, executive coaching. There are, however, some big differences between coaching and mentoring. Coaching facilitates the self-discovery process, and involves working with someone who is skilled at asking questions to unlock your own insights. Mentors, on the other hand, provide more explicit advice and counsel, and will likely be trusted members of your network, either inside or outside the company. Essentially, a coach helps you find your own answers, while a mentor not only answers your questions, but offers specific recommendations. Both techniques are ideal for helping you develop as a leader.
Mentors come in all varieties – sometimes it’s a former manager or colleague that you’ve stayed in touch with for years. Perhaps it’s an executive at your company. Often times, it’s a peer – someone with whom you’ve always had a strong relationship. In most cases, you never formally enter into a “mentoring contract” – it’s just understood that you respect this person and will continue to seek their counsel. Other times, the company will literally match you with a mentor. In either case, your mentor is someone who has the experience and maturity to help you make decisions, and when they talk, you listen.
Regardless of your connection, there are three elements that need to exist for mentoring to be productive for both parties. First, you need to trust their advice, otherwise, there’s no point in listening to it. You have to find a mentor that will tell you the truth and has your best interests at heart; when seeking a mentor, make it clear that you want their honest assessment at all times. Second, while the mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be formal, you should be clear about what you want when you ask for their thoughts. Are you just looking to brainstorm with someone, or are you really interested in their suggestions? Don’t make them guess what you want; make your requests clear. Finally, you don’t have to take their advice, but you do need to be gracious and say thank you. The mentor is in this because they like you or want to see you succeed. Don’t abuse the relationship; asking them if there is anything you can do for them is a nice way to keep the mutual admiration society going.
What’s the best way to use a mentor? There are several ways, and all of them have to do with your continuous development as a leader. First, sometimes you just need to ask someone: “how am I showing up as a leader?” Asking your trusted mentor for the straight scoop can be a safe way to get feedback on your leadership style and behaviors. Your mentor probably knows you really well, and can help you connect the dots on why certain behaviors are working or not working. Second, your mentor can give you specific advice if you’re struggling with a project or a relationship. They can help you prepare for difficult conversations, plan for a big presentation, or work through a complicated problem. If they work in your company, they can be particularly useful in helping you navigate the cultural and political landscape, especially higher up in the organization. Finally, mentors can be a great source of advice on your career choices. If you’re contemplating a move or considering a new assignment, don’t make a final decision without checking in with your mentor.
Unlike coaching, which you might only use once or twice in your entire career, mentoring is useful on an everyday basis. You should always have one or two mentors, and should be tapping into them on a regular basis. If you find yourself asking: “I wonder what Bill or Mary would say about this”, it’s probably time to ask for a bit of advice. Even if you’re pretty sure what to do, give them a call – chances are, you’ll be glad you did.