Accountability: Being a mentor

My last post dealt with my feelings about accountability to a mentor, to my mentor, and how I think things might be different if I were to try creating ways to be more accountable to this wise, kind man of style and substance. I spoke about the power of urgency, and the interesting relationship between urgency, accountability and performance. In this post, I want to continue discussing this theme, but this time I want to approach it from a slightly different angle. I want to talk about the role of being a mentor.

During my life and career, I have been a type of mentor to a great many people, men and women, young and old, mostly in informal situation, but occasionally in formal ones as well. I have been humbled by the nature of the relationship. There are few relationships that bring with them such complete and total trust than a genuine mentoring relationship. At times it seemed that the person who was looking at me as a mentor would do anything that I told them to do, regardless of whether it seemed rational or not.

I have also seen the absolute chaos that emerges when the mentoring relationship is treated lightly by either member of the relationship. I have watched as people have tanked careers, giving poorly thought out advice or counsel. I have also watched as advice was thoughtfully given, but not received with an open mind and a trusting attitude. I have watched people hold back from truly engaging the relationship, thereby cutting themselves off from the value of the relationship. I have also watched as chosen mentors tried to run from the relationship, being unwilling to take on the responsibilities inherent in the role. Watching all of this, and being part of some of it, has brought home to me the reality of this statement: Mentors can make or break careers faster than anything else.

With that in mind, and with the awareness that some who are reading this blog may find themselves soon in the role of mentor, either in a formal or an informal situation, I offer the following guidelines that have served me well.

It is about the person being mentored, not about you. Occasionally you will hear someone say, “I had such big dreams for them! They could really have gone far!” Often this is used to express our helplessness as we watch someone settle for less than their potential. But when it comes to mentoring, I have found it wise to remember that it is all about what the mentee wants. Do they want to grow in particular directions, develop particular skills? When I have questioned the critical nature of those skills, I have tried asked questions and shared perspective. However, I have also done everything in my power to help the person pursue what he or she wanted, not what I thought should be wanted.

As a mentor, the primary responsibility is looking out for the interests of the person being mentored. Yes, that means we need to take seriously the responsibility of advising the mentee regarding blind-spots in thinking so as to not miss opportunities for growth and improvement, but the choice of direction and the final decision for milestones, direction changes and goals for completion rests with the person being mentored.

You don’t need to know it all. Sometimes when working with people in a mentoring relationship, I have found myself squirming in my seat when I have been asked a question that I didn’t know the correct or complete answer. Anyone who has been in that situation can relate to the feeling of utter helplessness and complete vulnerability that comes with it. In such a situation, the temptation to theorize an answer or indicate knowledge when none is known can be almost irresistable.

But in this situation, a man of substance and style must remember guideline number 1.

If everything in the relationship is about the person being mentored, then giving anything but the very best counsel and advice is a betrayal of that relationship. Honesty and truth are paramount, and as scary as it might be to admit a lack of knowledge or an incompleteness of knowledge, it is far preferable to the damage that can be done by giving bad information.

I remember one time I found myself in this situation. My charge looked at me and asked a question, a question about which I had some information but which I felt my knowledge was incomplete. I took a moment, looked my mentee in the eyes and said, “I don’t know how to advise you on this. Let’s gain some information on this topic together. Here’s what I know as a beginning point.” The person thanked me for my candor and honesty, and we made a plan for gathering information and coming back together to talk about what we found. And while it is absolutely true that the person I was advising was disappointed that I couldn’t streamline the situation more completely, it was far preferable to the alternative.

Another alternative that I could have taken in that situation would have been to say, “I’m not sure I have the depth of knowledge that you need for this particular situation. Let’s find someone to connect you with that does.” Again, perhaps the individual being mentored would prefer to get information from me because of a pre-existing relationship of trust, but the best way that I can protect that relationship is being honest and using all my wisdom and resources (including my known network of professionals and other mentors) to help in the best way possible.

The reality is that, in many situations, there won’t be much change in the action taken and advised whether we know tremendous amounts about the situation or not. And that brings us to guideline number 3

Don’t do anything for your mentee that they can do for themselves. The mentoring relationship works best when the mentee does most of the work.

I love Star Wars! (Tangent coming, but trust me, this one will relate.) Growing up, I idolized Luke Skywalker. I wanted nothing less than to be a Jedi Knight, and not just because of the lightsaber. The Jedi were an ideal to be lived up to. Luke had two mentors that guided him, Yoda and Obi-Wan. Both Yoda and Obi Wan did amazing things, but most of the time when it came to doing things for Luke’s growth, they asked questions, responded with appropriate answers, encouragement and challenges and allowed Luke to do the necessary work himself. Remember the tree? and the X-Wing, and the jungle training?

There were things that Luke needed to know, but the biggest thing that he needed to know was that he, Luke, flawed and imperfect as he was, could do what was required of him.

And that is really what mentors do for us. They help us learn how to do what is required of us. They point us in directions, challenge our assumptions, encourage us to do more and celebrate our accomplishments with us.

That is a short list of the guidelines that I use for being a mentor. I hope that helps you in your quest for Substance and Style, and i hope it helps you help others.

Go forth and Conquer!

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