Mentors Are Useless—But They Don't Have To Be

I am a lousy mentee. It’s a funny admission to make as someone who makes her living as professional mentor. Sure, I train my clients on how best to leverage my expertise. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I follow my own advice very well.

It’s not that I don’t know the results that mentoring can create. How else can you access the smarts of someone who has led companies, made mistakes, picked themselves back up, and learned how to be really successful? The best part is that mentors are outside of your business, so they can see the forest for the trees, and question both the assumptions, and taboos, that stealthily drive decision making.

Even knowing this, I’m a lousy mentee, and I’m not alone. Many of my friends and colleagues share that they make the same mistake. While I usually mentor businesses, I’ve also been a mentor for the Haas Business School’s Global Social Venture Competition for the better part of a decade. There have been teams who used my services well and others who (how do I put this delicately?) didn’t. 

I’ve compiled the varied experience of lousy mentees into something of a hall of fame. Here’s how to make a mentor completely useless.

1.Underutilize them

I have to admit, this is me big time. I’ll recruit a mentor, then won’t reach out. I do prepare to make the call, then answer my own questions along the way. While this is a worthwhile process, it’s pretty insular.

The beauty of a mentor is that they have opinions and insights that you don’t. They’ve also committed themselves to the process and want to be a resource. One mistake that mentees regularly make, is thinking that they’re a burden to their mentor by calling on them.

In a recent and completely unscientific poll I made of mentors, every single mentor I asked said that they were underutilized by their mentees and would welcome more engagement. So do it!

2.Do everything they say

The surest way to undermine a mentoring relationship is to keep your mouth shut. You know your business best. That makes it your job to push back when you don’t understand something or if you think your mentor just isn’t getting it. 

By engaging in a real conversation you’re likely to expose the flaws in somebody’s thinking, discover gaps in your own, and likely explore previously unconsidered opportunities.

So how do you push back? First off, remember that it’s your business. That makes you both the resident expert and the only person in the conversation who is responsible for the results. Second, listen for understanding; ask any and all questions that come to mind; and if you think your mentor’s advice is on the wrong track tell her and explain why. Then repeat these steps.

3.Keep your cards close to the vest

Yes, your mentor is probably a well-established professional with a network that you’d love to be able to access. No, looking like you’ve got everything under control will not make your access to that network any more likely.

Here’s why: if everything is peachy then you don’t have much need for a mentor. If you don’t need a mentor, you’re unlikely to build a meaningful relationship with one. If you don’t have a great relationship, the mentor isn’t likely to make introductions to his trusted colleagues.

Business is messy. All mentors know that because they’ve been there, too. Share the mess and the unknowns to get battle-tested advice on how to clean it up. Your mentor will be judging you on how you develop far more than where you started.

4.Expect them to act like you

Startups and students have many things in common. They have back-breaking workloads; are extremely deadline driven; and think that a seven-day work week is normal. This is not always the case for mentors.

The first group I mentored for the Global Social Venture Competition introduced themselves at the outset, then I heard nothing until the plan was due. They sent their plan for my review at 10 p.m. on Saturday night when it was due that Monday morning.

Look, I’m happy to go the extra mile for people I’ve committed to support, but mutual respect goes a long way. This wasn’t respect, it was perfunctory. As it turned out, the team didn’t advance in the competition.

Another team I mentored, who ended up winning first place, sent me their plan with plenty of time for my review. We had back-and-forth discussions about changes I felt they needed to make to their business model, and they had time to alter some of their plan. It was a very fruitful collaboration.

Which just goes to prove my point. Mentors are completely useless--if you make them that way.

[Image: Flickr user Jillian Stewart]

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1 Comments

  • Cijaye DePradine

    Great article Michelle.  I've been a corporate trainer, public speaker, consultant, mentor and coach over my career and I would say that this applies to ALL of these roles as well.  I couldn't agree with you more on these subjects (and your breakdown of why). I like the thought provoking manner in which you said it all as well. Sincerely, Coach Cijaye