Over the years I have worked with countless business leaders, helping them navigate the murky waters of leadership. During those same years, I’ve read volumes of books and articles claiming to have the definitive answer on how to transform an individual contributor into a great leader.
Clearly, if there was a formula, a series of prescribed actions and activities that would result in the worker to leader transformation, I would have discovered it by now. What I firmly believe is that there is no one path, no single journey that results in this transformation. Every person who aspires to be a successful organizational leader has their own unique path to discover and follow.
The better question to ask is what is the most efficient and effective method to use to discover my own path to leadership? Book authors advocate reading, academic institutions promote advanced degrees, management training firms provide webinars and seminars. All of these learning options have value but vary on their efficiency and effectiveness.
I am a real advocate of learning while doing–and learning in a guided way, not by trial and error. The best guide to help you discover your own path to successful leadership is engaging a strong and supportive mentor. That said, finding a good mentor can be challenging. Read on to learn about a somewhat novel approach to finding a mentor who is the best fit for your needs.
FAST-TRACK TO A SUCCESSFUL MENTOR RELATIONSHIP
By Dr. Alice Waagen
The dictionary tells us that a mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor, a trusted counselor or guide. Based on this definition, two elements are key to a successful mentor relationship: trust and experience. I need to trust the mentor has my best interests at heart, and the mentor needs to have the knowledge, experience and expertise that I lack and need to obtain. Without trust, I’d be reluctant to listen and act on the advice; without the superior expertise, the conversations would not be fruitful for me.
Herein lays the challenge with most formal mentor programs: if I am assigned a mentor with whom I have no previous experience, I need to build the trust first. The relationship chemistry so needed for open dialogue may not flourish. Or the mentor may not have the depth of knowledge I am seeking. Or the assigned mentor may have a leadership style that does not mesh with my personality and way of working. What ensues is frustration, not learning.
When I work with executives who are looking to find a good mentor, I suggest that they proactively recruit a mentor using a thoughtful and structured process. When we have a staff vacancy, we (should!) use a structured process to document the skills and knowledge needed for the position, screen applicants, and attempt to match what they have to offer to the open position. Selecting a person to guide our leadership growth and development is critical to your future success. Why rely on a corporately administered matchup? Thoughtfully assess your developmental goals then use the following steps to recruit and enlist a resource best suited to help you achieve those goals.
- Spend the next few weeks observing leaders in their organization to determine which ones exhibit leadership traits that you admire and see to be effective. Who do people listen to? Whose advice do they seek out? Look to find someone who treats others with respect and uses more collaboration techniques than directing and domineering. This is the person who will make a good leadership mentor.
- Do not ask him or her to be a mentor. Instead, ask them to join you for coffee or a quick lunch to answer a few brief questions you have about how they lead their team. Listen. Write it down what they say. Say thank you. Then ask if you can call again if you have other questions. Repeat these informal, ad hoc meetings every few weeks. On the surface, you are seeking advice. In reality, you are pilot testing the relationship.
- Use the advice the leader offers. Reflect on how it worked for you. Was the proposed action comfortable for you? Did it fit with your personality, values, and approach to leading others? Was it effective? If all of these questions answer in the affirmative, you have found your leadership mentor.
The problem with putting the “mentor” word out there first is that people are reluctant to commit to a relationship before they try it out. Great leaders have very little time to spare. They are more than willing to help if they see that you are eager to learn and will use what they share with you. Demonstrate that in your actions, and the relationships will grow over time to be a regular support system for you.
The other reason to pilot a mentor without setting up the mentor relationship formally is that you can exit the relationship if it is not working for you. Executives may lead others well, but may not be good communicators with you. Or they may be the overbooked kind who schedule time with you only to cancel at the last minute. Without the title “mentor” on the table, you can just let the relationship drift away without hurt feelings.
Last note: once you find a good mentor, do your homework. Come to the meetings prepared with specific questions, not just to talk, or worse, gripe. Come prepared to take notes. Listen, ask clarifying and probing questions. Share the positive results achieved from their advice. Basically, respect that person’s time and generosity. That is your part in building the relationship.
Learning from an internal success story is, in my opinion, a shortcut to learning the best ways to lead. It is on-the-job-learning without the pain of continual mistakes.