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Headed off to the Trojan war, Odysseus asked a trusted friend to stay behind in Ithaca and watch over the upbringing of his son, Telemachus. Odysseus chose the best person he knew to prepare his heir to handle family responsibilities while he was away. It was a good thing he did, because he was gone for ten years. The man’s name was MentorCenturies later mentor became synonymous with wise person, teacher, and trusted advisor when it appeared in Les Aventures de Telemaque, a novel by the tutor to the grandson of Louis XIV, the king of France. It was said that when Le Petit Dauphin (later Louis XV) was an adult, he would pass whole days slumped on his throne, lazily tapping his cane against his foot. His ineffectual rule contributed to the decline of royal authority and led to the French Revolution, so everything worked out in the long run for the French peoples. History offers severable notable mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Hayden and Beethoven, Freud and Jung, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Freddie Laker and Richard Branson, Professor Dumbledore and Harry Potter.

Teach me to how to fish.

Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy, and knowledge to assist the growth and ability of another person. These days, the word mentor means someone who advises a less-experienced person. The term derives from the Latin for “one who strongly criticizes.” This comes as a shock to those who expect mentors to act as their personal cheerleader, promoter, and coach.

Coaching is not mentoring.

The terms mentoring and coaching often get used interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. While both support someone’s development, they go about it in entirely different ways. Coaches tell people what to do and how to do it. Coaches limit their involvement to a particular activity. I know there are voice coaches and acting coaches and dialogue coaches, but when I hear coach, I think of team sports. And when I think of sports coaches there isn’t a warm and fuzzy one among the greats. Vince Lombardi was no sweetie, nor was Bobby Knight or Béla Károlyi. Earl Woods, a former Special Forces soldier, was known for being incredibly tough on his protégé because he wanted him to learn how to handle himself when things go wrong, as they inevitably will. His son Eldrick has gone on to become one of the greatest golfers of all time.

Mentoring is a long-term relationship focused on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. The mentor is a source of wisdom, not someone who advises on specific actions or behavioral changes in daily work. A mentor offers high-level guidance for long-term development, while a coach helps provide more immediate improvement in targeted areas. Hands-on learning in the workplace would not involve a mentor. This is usually a manager acting as a coach. In restaurants, on-the-job training is when the too-busy manager tells the new server to go follow Pat. This approach ensures new employees learn only one person’s habits, which always include plenty of wrong ways of doing things.

Sis, Boom, Bah, Humbug.

Freelance journalist Cheryl Winokur Munk wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal called People Like Their Mentors to Be Cheerleaders: That May Be a Mistake. In it, she said “Recent studies suggest that people tend to favor advisers who are positive, cheerleader-types over tough talkers and voices of experience.” Munk bases her argument on a study of the TV singing show “The Voice.” Contestants were asked to choose a singing coach and most chose the one they liked the best over the one with the most experience. This isn’t all that surprising until I tell you when asked beforehand how they would choose, most said they’d go with experience. They said they’d do one thing and then did the opposite, another fine example of why asking people to predict what they will do in the future has so little value.

Contestants didn’t want criticism, they wanted support.

This you know well from your friends who ask you for advice but really want you to tell them they’re doing the right thing. Here’s the interesting part you’ve been waiting for – contestants who chose cheerleader types generally underperformed those who chose experts. Preferring someone warm and fuzzy over someone with high standards usually leads to negative results, a finding with wide-ranging implications for companies and managers.

Catherine Shea, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, specializes in organizational behavior. She says that choosing an experienced mentor who may be rough around the edges can be like taking cough medicine – “It tastes awful, but it works.” Companies should take lessons from these findings, especially in terms of their hiring practices. “Far too often, hiring decisions are based on factors such as personality and whether a candidate is likable. Choices based on such factors can affect a company’s productivity and success,” she says. Rather than rely on feelings, Shea says companies need to focus more on a reasoned analysis of a candidate’s expertise and ability. Adam Grant, Wharton management professor, agrees. “We miss out on opportunities for learning and growth because we’re surrounded by too many cheerleaders and too few constructive critics,” he says.

Mentoring is not coaching.

Mentors do not provide on-the-spot coaching or training. Instead, they teach mentees to learn to think through issues and approaches by asking them difficult-to-answer questions.

A mentor does not:

  • Solve short-term problems
  • Tell you how to do things.
  • Serve as a coach, counselor, or therapist.

What a mentor does for you:

  • Takes a long-range view of your growth and development.
  • Challenges you to open your eyes and mind to different perspectives and learn to think differently.
  • Helps you see the destination but does not give you turn-by-turn instructions.
You get out of it what you put into it.

Being a mentee is not a passive role. It requires you to commit significant time and energy. When you ask someone to mentor you, it’s your job to define your own goals, cultivate the relationship, seek out advice, attend meetings or events you’re invited to, and so on. Andrew Rubin, CEO of Illumio, says “The more you know yourself – what you are good at and what you are not – the more value you and your mentor will get out of the relationship.”

The Voice contestants discounted the importance of experience. 

This is a common characteristic of those who don’t have much of it. An example I like to use involves experience and education. Those fresh out of college have educations but little experience, so they quite predictably think that education is more important. Those who have been working at something for many years have discovered how much learning occurs over time and will tell you experience is the best teacher. Both attitudes put too much value on the assets they already have and not enough on the ones they need to acquire. Both believe the one I already have is better than the one I don’t. Both are wrong. In fact, the ones with the most value are the ones who have both.

Socrates taught students by asking question after question. 

He believed challenging students’ statements developed their critical thinking abilities by exposing their inconsistencies and contradictions. His putting the question back to the questioners required them to think harder and dig deeper. Asking questions instead of providing answers is still the best and most powerful way to stimulate critical thinking because it challenges your assumptions and forces you to examine your beliefs. Like skilled interviewers, mentors know the best questions cannot be answered with a yes or no, where anyone can guess right half the time, or with multiple choice questions, where anyone can guess right some of the time. Open-ended questions give people the opportunity to answer in their own words, which requires them to think about what they’re saying and why. Socrates would judge for himself how well or how poorly his questions were answered. 

If you want to be a mentor.

Learn to ask these six types of Socratic questions, for which I’ve provided a few examples. Note how each is an open-ended question that requires serious thinking: 

  1. Questions for clarification:
    • What do you mean by that? 
    • Could you explain that in more detail?
  1. Questions which challenge assumptions:
    • What assumptions are you making here?
    • How could you prove what you’re saying?
  1. Questions which necessitate reason or evidence:
    • Can you give me some examples? 
    • What are some counterarguments?
  1. Questions regarding perspectives:
    • What are your argument’s strengths and weaknesses?
    • Who are the winners and losers?
  1. Questions which calculate consequences:
    • What are you implying?
    • How does this relate to previous knowledge?
  1. Questions on their question:
    • What was the point of your question?
    • What would have been a better question to ask?
If you want someone to mentor you.

Tell that person what you are willing to invest in the relationship. Tell them you know you need to be the one doing the work because they are donating their time and expertise. The University of Nebraska says being prepared is a mentee responsibility, including always bringing a written agenda to meetings with your mentor. Acknowledge that meetings are your responsibility, as are the topics, the questions, and the status reporting. As a mentee, determine what you will make sure your mentor gets out of the relationship that makes investing heavily in you worthwhile.

I’ve been asked to mentor many people.

To get an idea of how much thought they’ve given this, I ask them what they want from me and what they will do to get it. Few arrive with fully-formed replies, so I suggest they:

  • Answer those questions.
  • Add some of their own.
  • Come back with a plan.
  • Tell me about the experience.

When they tell me what they want from me, I look for things like this:

  • I want you to help me develop my ability to x, y, and z.
  • I want to benefit from your willingness to share your experiences.
  • I want you to provide me with straight talk and honest feedback.

When they tell me what they will do to get those things? I listen for such things as:

  • I will prepare diligently.
  • I will have an agenda ready for every meeting.
  • I will measure, analyze, and report my progress.

Most never come back, because they’re not looking for a mentor, but instead are hoping to find a cheerleader or at least someone who will give them a free fish. Only when someone has devoted the time and energy to identify their goals, needs, and responsibilities can we talk about how we’re going to go forward together.

Your potential is yours to recognize and unlock.

Choose someone who challenges you, points you in new directions, and teaches you new perspectives.

f you’ve got your eye on the one you want to be your next star, or need someone to prepare your heir-apparent to take over your knowledge management function, send me a note or give me a call.

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