Of Proteges and Pitfalls

A complete plan for getting the mentoring you need.

When John (unless explicitly identified by full name and company affiliation, names have been changed to protect identities) worked for a global energy company, he gained skills and visibility through the coaching of his mentor and boss, Richard. But when Richard fell out of favor, suddenly John lacked cover. He was so strongly associated with his boss that his stock started to fall, too.


Alice was so effectively advised by her mentor that she started to overtake him. When Alice found herself within striking distance of his job, she was distraught. If she didn’t go for it, her company’s hard-charging culture would write her off. But if she did, she’d feel disloyal.

Ah, mentoring. No one disputes its value, but its pitfalls are legion. Since the 1970s, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that mentoring is the single most valuable ingredient in a successful career for both men and women. So now everybody wants a mentor. But mentors aren’t fairy godmothers; they can’t and shouldn’t be expected to make all your dreams come true. For women and minorities in particular, the overexpectation problem is acute. Female leaders are often expected to fill the roles of mother, sister, girlfriend, and activist — and do their day job. Minority executives speak of a responsibility to “lift as we rise,” to improve conditions for the whole group while carving out their own careers. Men are often wary of mentoring women, fearing gossip and innuendo, but they also don’t want to appear sexist. Considered together, it’s inevitable that mentoring will consistently create issues of trust and confidence. So how can you negotiate these effectively? What should you be thinking about when initiating a relationship with a mentor, and what should you expect? What are the rules of the mentoring game?

1. Choose well

Find someone who is committed to the relationship, will give it time, wants to see you thrive, and doesn’t need to compete with you. Be explicit about needing honest feedback, not just moral support. A great mentor tells you when you’re brilliant, but more important, delivers tough love. This also means that you have to be prepared to listen to some hard truths and awkward questions. When Saj-nicole Joni was a rising executive at Microsoft, her finance person kept making mistakes, which she pointed out as soon as he passed out his spreadsheets. Meeting with her mentor, Jeff Raikes, she expected praise for the division’s best ever quarter. Instead, he read her the riot act. “I don’t care if Jack’s numbers are wrong, or how smart you are,” he said. “You don’t treat a junior employee like that in front of others. If you don’t fix this, you aren’t going anywhere.” Tough love of the best sort. And Joni fixed it fast.


2. Get formal mentors

Many companies run formal mentoring programs, and if yours does — go for it. You can learn a great deal about corporate policies, politics, and fault lines just by watching these relationships. But when mentor and protege work for the same company, there will always be things that can’t safely be discussed.

When Jane signed up for her ad agency’s mentoring program, she was a little daunted when the company assigned Jacqui to be her mentor. A managing associate, Jacqui had a reputation as a ferocious leader who drove teams hard to get results; she had little interest in feedback or dialogue. Jane learned a lot from her, though, and they got along well. But when Jane heard that most of Jacqui’s group thought Jacqui was heading for a fall because she wasn’t listening, Jane could only take it in, not intervene. Formal mentoring programs obey formal lines of command. There’s a limit to what you can share.

3. Mentors don’t have to be the boss

Not all mentoring relationships need to be so formal or follow the chain of command. When Paige Arnof-Fenn ran the Olympic Coin Program, which raised funds for the Atlanta Olympics, her mentor was her assistant, Beverly Spears. “I learned more watching Bev handle people and situations than you can imagine,” she says. “She always took the high road and never compromised her integrity.” Spears’s ability to teach Arnof-Fenn how to handle complex personality politics turned Arnof-Fenn into a strong corporate player and illustrates how mentors can be found at any level. Their informal relationship continues to this day, because it wasn’t fundamentally based on their business relationship.


4. Find expertise mentors

We all have areas of expertise. Find someone — inside or outside your organization — who you consider outstanding in your field. When Ed Hotard was COO of Praxair, a Union Carbide spinoff, he made a habit of introducing his highfliers to leaders in the same disciplines in other companies. He wanted to give them the opportunity to stretch themselves in their field. But some were too preoccupied with day-to-day operations to find the time. “I didn’t blame them,” he says, “but I found that those who didn’t take advantage of the introductions weren’t going to progress very far.” Hotard provided expertise mentors to deepen his proteges’ knowledge and experience, but he also used the introductions to test for professional and intellectual ambition.

5. Find a third opinion

When you get to the top, you can’t look to a mentor for all the answers. Problems are too complex and time consuming. Instead, find someone who looks for answers with you. You need a third opinion — a thinking partner outside your company, often on retainer, who has no vested interest in anything except your success.

Ramon got his first leadership break when he became EVP of manufacturing at Coatings Worldwide, an industrial paints and adhesives business. But he found that his manufacturing teams were so siloed that they caused expensive production breaks. His first thought was to hire better people, but that would cost time and money with no guarantee of success. He knew he needed a different approach. Hearing Anesh, an experienced player in global manufacturing, speak at a conference gave him an idea. Ramon needed his breadth of experience, so he invited him to Coatings as a consultant and paid him to reframe and test the issues. “Anesh challenged my thinking and made me stretch to see areas I wouldn’t have otherwise considered,” he says. Anesh was a great mentor because he didn’t have an agenda. He was an outsider, and he didn’t have a solution he was trying to sell. This let him frame the questions differently and move beyond fault finding.


6. Think life, not just career

We tend to think of mentors purely in the context of work, but work is just part of your whole life. Holly, a software executive at General Electric, argues that you need mentors for each part of your life — who, together, represent a personal board of directors. “The key to the personal board of directors is to make sure it is balanced,” says Holly. “If it is all work and no family, then guess where your advice will be skewed? If you neglect one area of your PBOD, you will neglect that area of your life.” If financial security, community, or spiritual life are important to you, find mentors for these, too. Having a personal board doesn’t just enrich your life, it also protects you from a dependency on a single mentor. And it puts you in a strong position to evaluate where your mentoring relationships are thriving — and when it’s time for a change.

Sidebar: Pointers for Mentors

Choose wisely.

Choose a protege you can learn from, too — someone who may give you some insight into different layers of your organization.

Be serious.

Don’t commit to a mentorship if you can’t invest the necessary time. Block out regular meetings, set goals, and plan on spending at least one hour a month.


Observe boundaries.

Know what kind of mentor you are and concentrate on that role. Make sure you and your protege understand the limits on trust within an organization.

Encourage outside voices.

If you can’t provide the third opinion to your protege, make sure he or she gets one from somewhere outside the company.

Introduce your protege to other mentors.

This lessens dependency and provides other growth opportunities. A network of mentors beats a single one and provides an outstanding model for leadership.


Sidebar: Open-Source Mentoring

Memo to General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt: We hate to be the ones to tell you, but apparently there was a much easier way. The International Mentoring Network Organization (IMNO) is a nonprofit group devoted to helping early- and midcareer professionals connect with A-list mentors. Its idea is that everyone should be able to have access to the Welchian wisdom Immelt received. So IMNO founder Patrick Tedjamulia paired with two friends to reach out to bigfoot mentors, interview them, and share their knowledge with everyone at Among their gets so far are, yes, Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, even a storyboard artist from Spiderman 2 (IMNO refreshingly knows not everyone wants to be GE’s CEO).

There are several ways to use One is to interview your own mentor and post the transcript. Or you can choose a dream mentor and request that he or she sit for an interview. Or you can just read others’ postings.

IMNO’s transcripts offer several advantages over career-advice tomes, and most of the credit belongs to hungry mentees who don’t beat around the bush about wanting to get ahead. For example, Bossidy was asked how to advance at GE (succeed in projects that touch a variety of industries) and when to jettison a good gig for a risky one (when you’ve learned all you can in a job).


Like any open-source project, the site is free. What you achieve with the advice, of course, could be invaluable.

— Mike Brewster

Sidebar: for Mentors

Those who lead charmed professional lives might find a trusted career mentor in an office down the hall, or maybe even in the next cubicle. But how will you find that perfect sounding board if he or she toils hundreds — or thousands — of miles away?


Forward-thinking companies are turning to Mentor Scout, a Web-based mentor-matching tool created by Nobscot Corp. An annual subscription costs anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000, depending on the number of participants. Home Depot, Best Buy, and even Brunswick Corp.’s bowling division have adopted the technology to help far-flung operations managers.

General managers-in-training at Brunswick Bowling & Billiards can log on to the system, fill out a member profile — including skills they want to improve — and up pops a list of volunteer mentors from within the company that fit the bill. “I don’t want to say it’s like a dating service, but it kind of works that way,” says Dean Schuller, a longtime general manager.

Using the service, newly minted Brunswick manager Kelly FitzGerald, based in Chicago, found a mentor in Philadelphia. “Because we connected through the Web, a mentor doesn’t have any preconceived notion of what you know,” Fitz-Gerald says. “You just have to ask them for help, and it’s all confidential.” Besides, there can be some advantages to a mentor who can’t see a messy desk — or catch you rolling a few extra frames after closing.


— MB

Margaret Heffernan is a columnist and author of The Naked Truth (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Saj-nicole Joni is CEO of Cambridge International Group and author of The Third Opinion (Portfolio, 2004).