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Not Everyone Deserves a Mentor

I was at first shocked when I heard a Four Star General in the U.S. Army proclaim, “Not everyone deserves a mentor“.  The late General Robert W. Cone delivered these remarks at a conference I attended at Ft. Benning, GA in 2011.  He was a very well respected senior leader and at the time the Commanding General of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command. 

The more I thought about those words, the more I realized he was correct.  If one does not keep their eyes and ears open and look for opportunities to seek mentorship then they really do not deserve to be mentored.  The responsibility in a mentoring relationship lies not only with the mentor but also with the mentee, something that is oftentimes not discussed.  Being mentored is a privilege, not a right.

The concept of mentorship was addressed in the U.S. Army around 1985 when then Chief of Staff of the Army, General John Wickham Jr., identified “leadership” as that year’s theme. Around the same timeframe, private enterprise and academia began to place more emphasis on mentoring. Most of the literature focused on the characteristics and functions of a mentor. 

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to mentorship. Some think organizations should formalize mentoring programs. Others feel that a mentor-mentee relationship should be informal and grow naturally. 

I believe in the latter.  However, I also believe every good leader should create an atmosphere that makes it clear that they are accessible and very open to taking on a mentoring role. 

 More and more papers and books are being written focused on the role and function of a mentor. This includes formalizing definitions of what “mentoring” actually is.  Whatever definition you want to apply to mentoring, at its core mentoring is about developing future leaders.  The overarching purpose of mentorship is to prepare people for future leadership opportunities and positions of greater responsibility. 

 Rather than focusing on the role of the mentor, I am going to take a different perspective and focus on the responsibility of the mentee in a mentoring relationship.

Mentorship is Everywhere

In 1985 the U.S. Army conducted a survey regarding mentorship. 59 percent of the participants responded that they did not have a mentor.  At that time I was counted among that number.  In retrospect, I believe the majority of our group were blind to opportunities around us. 

If you are looking for a mentor, many times it is as simple as seeking out someone you respect and trust and ask them for advice.  Over the years, I have not come across many leaders in the military or private sector who would not sit down and give their time to help others learn from their experience.  Depending on the chemistry generated, and the perceived interest of the mentee, a majority of those leaders would gladly continue in a long-term mentoring role.

Mentorship is all around us.  Mentorship is not just something that happens in a formal one-on-one engagement between gray-beard and a young disciple.  Mentorship could happen anywhere, but a person has to be open to the opportunities. 

When a senior executive chairs a meeting, an Army commander provides guidance at a training event, or a civilian business manager engages in dialogue when managing by wandering around, these are times to listen and learn.

I have learned to think of every engagement with a senior leader as a mentoring opportunity for me, whether the engagement occurs one-on-one or in a group setting.  Observing how other leaders operate, for better or worse, might be the best mentoring opportunity that exists. 

A senior leader I worked for was a master at engaging others outside of our organization.  He took the time to make people feel that they were critical to our mutual success and their continued support was essential.  Whether he knew it or not, he was mentoring me on the importance of engaging stakeholders.  I was open to this opportunity, learned the importance of these engagements, and I know I am now a better leader for it.

Mentoring is not only top-down.  Mentoring occurs in a 360-degree setting.  Do not only look to leaders for mentorship but also look to peers and to followers.  I heard someone say, if you are the smartest guy in the room, you should find a different room. 

By surrounding yourself with top quality people you will become better.  My favorite Bible verse is Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”.  People feed off of one another.  When we are at our best, we make each other stronger and better – “sharper” if you will.  Everyone on a team has something to contribute; some talent or gift that no one else on the team has.  We have to be open to mentorship from every level. 

 Actor Bryan Cranston tells a story of when he played the role of a dentist in the comedy series “Seinfeld”.  He was at the set the evening before his piece on the show was to be taped, getting used to the props he would use.

The scene called for him to place a mask on Jerry Seinfeld’s face to administer nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas.  As Bryan was fiddling with the mask he heard a voice from somewhere above him offer a suggestion.  Bryan looked up and saw a maintenance man replacing a lightbulb in a fixture high up on the ceiling. The man suggested that if Bryan, as the dentist, took a whiff of the nitrous oxide first, the scene would be funnier. 

Bryan took the man’s advice and the scene became one of the most memorable in the history of the series.  Mentorship is everywhere.  We simply have to be open to it.  If you seek mentoring opportunities, they will come your way.  It is about your mindset, your attitude, your openness.

Mentorship is a Contact Sport

A mentor-mentee association is a two-way street and the mentee should play an active rather than a passive role in the relationship.  An effective mentor must devote a great deal of time and energy to the relationship but the mentee must also invest heavily to make the connection more meaningful and worthwhile. 

A mentee should display their enthusiasm for the relationship characterized by a positive attitude and openness to new ideas and suggested techniques. Showing appreciation for the time the mentor is taking will likely lead to a fruitful and enduring relationship. 

A mentee must project an earnest attitude and pour energy into the relationship.  Active listening is important.  A mentee should have a pen and notebook available and take notes, ask questions for clarification, and summarize what has been heard. 

When in a dialogue with one’s mentor cell phones must be nonexistent and all attention must be focused on the conversation.  When given suggestions on articles and books to read, a mentee should go ahead and at least check them out and give them a fair shot.  Once read, it is a good practice to let your mentors know what the takeaways were.  

It is important that the mentee be actively engaged in the relationship.  As an example, a mentee could recommend books or articles to a mentor.  This is very thoughtful and demonstrates appreciation for the relationship.

A mentee should check in with their mentor from time to time and provide feedback or information on how a current assignment or position is going.  Highlight the successes as well as the challenges.  I am always happy to hear from someone I have mentored and learn how their career has progressed. 

I often send contemporary leadership articles out to a group of folks I have mentored.  There is one man in particular, who without fail, always provides me some insight he has gained from the reading. 

It is valuable for me to know what other people are thinking and I always appreciate the feedback.  He is one who I know I will continue to mentor, long after others have faded away. That is because we have both become invested in a fulfilling relationship. 

Pay it forward

A mentee should be generous in passing on to others what they have learned and be prepared to assume a mentoring role in their own right.  It is important to be approachable and create a persona where others feel comfortable seeking your advice and counsel. 

Colin Powell said, “The day Soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you’ve stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you are able to help them or concluded that you don’t care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.”

 Also, be aware that your actions speak volumes.  Emulate the traits of the type of leader you admire and want to become.  “Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching”, is a characteristic of integrity. 

A caveat to that is, “someone is always watching”.  The way you interact with others, the demeanor you display, the respect you show, all will be a guide for others as they develop their own leadership philosophies and approaches. 

Mentoring is important.  It is a key tool for developing future leaders and one of the most essential responsibilities of any leader is to develop other leaders.  However, everyone has to take responsibility for their own leadership development. 

Being open to learning opportunities that present themselves, staying engaged with people you could learn from, and being generous with your time to help others learn from your experience will do a great deal to grow strong leaders in your organization and beyond.

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