Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Forget a Mentor?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett has kindly posed the question about the critical role that mentors play in our life right on the cover page of her book. OK, it's in brackets and shaded, but it's there. The key area she focuses on is, of course, sponsorship and tactics to land and leverage a powerful sponsor. But is the era of mentoring over?

Mrs. Hewlett argues that careers depend on sponsors, and surrounding oneself with mentors, who give advice and groom you but don't have the power over your promotions or plum assignments, is a losing strategy. She does point out the benefits of mentoring, while writing it off as an asymmetrical, one-way type of relationship, where the energy and benefits flow only towards the mentee. Sponsorship, says Hewlett, is a balanced relationship where the "protégée" pays back with loyalty and stellar performance. I wish to settle somewhere in the middle. The idea of seeking someone mighty to advance one's career means that you actually care about your career more than your own development. The book is full of real stories and practical advice --- my only question is what's the key audience.

My biggest frustration with the book was that I cannot buy x number of copies of "Forget a Mentor. Find a Sponsor" and bring it to a general training on personal branding, career management or organizational behavior. It's too heavily skewed towards women, and I am afraid it won't talk to men. It does include a few stories about men, racial and LGBT minorities, but it more feels like cole slaw next to a burger: you haven't asked for it, but look - there it is. On the other hand, next time I am organizing a female issues event, I am definitely using it as a resource: easy-to-read, actual, witty, lots of reflection questions and tools. But back to the matter of mentoring.

I was lucky to have a few really great mentors in my life. I was not looking for them - it sort of happened naturally. That's the best - when mentors come into your life when you need them and leave when the relationship is organically over. My first serious mentor was a social affairs officer at the regional administration office; a woman who knew how to leverage relationships, had an extensive network of outrageously useful contacts, loved guitar ballads over a camp fire and took an interest in my development. There was very little I could offer in return - we did not even work for the same organizations: actually, I was a student. What I could offer was my personality and enthusiasm.

While working at Shell, I got my first official mentor. It was sort of match-making: one day my big VP boss came to me and said that she'd found me a great mentor: a business development director, in charge of joint venture relations at the time. A jovial guy, he told me a lot about the business side of what we were doing, but the relationship never developed: we were too different and there was little that bound us together.

My personal relations with my mentors made me squint when I read "Forget the Mentor" in the title. The author says that affinity is not really required in your sponsorship relations. Then it starts feeling a bit too manipulative and calculative for my liking. Maybe it's just me not being so career-oriented. Or me having had sponsors who were my mentors at the same time? I have to agree that corporate-sponsored mentoring programs don't work but natural mentors have your best interests in mind and can bat for you when needed. Isn't that what we should be striving for?

Resume: a nice-to-read book, I stick to my opinion of the value of natural mentors that I would prefer to the over-engineered tactics of landing a sponsor. Some good ideas on personal branding, and a really nice collection of personal career stories. Not something I would re-read, but might be good to jot down a few key ideas and questions. For instance, the personal brand questionnaire - have a go at it!

  • How am I innately different from my peers?
  • What about my background, experience, or schooling makes me unique?
  • What do I do exceptionally well? In what skill sets do I have the black belt?
  • What is my currency? What skill sets do I have that set me apart?
  • What experiences distinguish me?
  • How does my perspective differ from that of others? What informs my perspective that does not inform theirs?
  • What approach do I bring to solving thorny problems? How might this approach distinguish me from my peers?
  • What accomplishment has given me joy and won me accolades? What gives me satisfaction so that I want to do more of it?


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