Don’t Play Politics With Mentor Selection

New York Times Photo
Martha S. Samuelson

A friend in a relatively new position asked me last week to help him think through who he might ask to become a mentor.  When I suggested a couple of possibilities, including an experienced peer, he winced and then offered his wish list of senior people, none of whom he knew yet.  Judging from the individuals on his list, I realized he was seeking someone for political, not developmental, reasons.  My caution to him:  Successful political mentorships, indeed, can occur, but most end in disappointment.   

I suspect my mentorship counseling didn’t change his mind, so perhaps today’s New York Times’ Corner Office column will accomplish what I wasn’t able to achieve.   The Q&A column features Martha S. Samuelson, president and CEO of  the Analysis Group, a consulting firm which is considered one of the best places to work in New England.  While the entire column merits reading, the key points I hope my friend reads are summed up in the following two questions:

Q.  Mentoring is clearly important to you.

A.  I’ve had wonderful mentors along the way, and I enjoy doing that for the next generation very much.  Maybe there are some people who are going to get there no matter what, but most of us need a lot of help along the way.  Everyone needs to figure out how to find mentors.

Q.  So what’s your advice on how to find mentors?

A.  One of the greatest mistakes people make with mentors is they try to snow them, as opposed to asking for help.  I think picking a mentor for political reasons is a big mistake.  Find somebody you like, and figure out how to make it safe and comfortable for somebody to help you.

Don’t make it toxic for somebody to say, “You could have done this better.”  Communicate with them so they know what you’re doing and they know what you’re concerned about, and make it safe for them to give you feedback.

When I look at the people who I think are racing along in my firm right now, that’s the skill they have. They make it really safe. They make you want to help them and they make it really easy, so you can go to them and say, “Why did you do this?” and they’re 10 steps ahead of you.  They’ll say: “I don’t know why I did it. I must have been thinking about this.  Now it’s obvious to me.”  Then you want to go back and help them again.  They make it safe.

Think of how much time, if you’re in a management role, you spend steeling yourself to have a discussion you don’t want to have.  It’s a lot. And then how unpleasant it is when the discussion starts and you realize this is going to be hand-to-hand combat. It’s not fun, and the opposite are the people where you just want to help because they make it easy for you.

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