Yale University suggests four good questions that people seeking career development should ask, as they consider choosing a mentor. In response, I offer how Executive Springboard operationalizes each.
Do I look up to this person?
We recruit accomplished leaders as mentors. We want executives to look at our mentors’ resumes and understand how they can learn from them.
We initially sought mentors who had at least a half-dozen years of experience as an officer in Fortune 500 companies. As our business expanded and our client base included smaller companies, so has the diversity of our mentor network. An Integrator in a $10M manufacturing company may be better served by a mentor who has succeeded in small businesses like theirs. We strive to provide shared experience, so an executive feels like their mentor has faced the situation they are in.
Traditionally, mentors are older than their mentee, but this is not always the case. It is important that a mentor has experience and expertise in an area of importance to the mentee. A Gen X manager who wants to understand their Gen Z customers or employees might seek a “reverse mentor” from that cohort. Executive Springboard has extended its mentor network into Millennials, and we strive to offer executives relevant choices among our mentors.
As successful as our mentors have been in their careers, it’s important that they are generous enough to willingly share their failures. I am not sure what benefit a mentee gets from somebody who spends an hour regaling them in their successes. The hardest thing about learning to ride a bike is the pavement. We learn from failure. But it is a little less painful if we can learn from somebody else’s mistakes. I think this is critical to looking up to that person.
Am I able to work well with this person?
Our vetting process involves interviews to determine whether a potential mentor is a great active listener. Active listening is a key skill in executive coaching, and about 25% of our mentors have coaching certification. But whether they are certified or not, they must impress me with how they follow a conversation, seek to understand, probe before reaching conclusions and evaluate another’s state of mind. Before the meter is running, we have a get-acquainted session between mentor and mentee. If you don’t feel a connection, if rapport is not being established early on, you might want to try another mentor.
Rapport is a two-way street. If a mentor is concerned that their mentee is not being transparent, I counsel them to tell the mentee that they don’t believe this will be a valuable experience and why. It might be a short engagement for us, but hopefully the feedback is enough to jar an executive into a more constructive relationship in the future.
The pandemic has made our video mentoring model better accepted. Some people find that nothing beats face-to-face. I like to think of a zoom call as face-to-face, just in two dimensions instead of three. For us, Zoom or Google Meet calls work well for several reasons. First, as our mentors are paid for their time, what looks attractive as an hourly rate becomes less so if they have to commute. Second, the best fit for a leader in Ann Arbor might be with a mentor in Austin. Third, video is superior to phone calls because there is no multitasking and non-verbal cues can be read.
I’ve already mentioned mentors having to be willing to share their failures. Executive Springboard mentor Brigid Bonner referred to this as “showing my scars.” When a mentor makes themself vulnerable, it invites the mentee to follow suit. This is when the good stuff happens. Part of our process is a strict code of confidentiality. What gets said in mentoring sessions doesn’t go back to the employer, even though they might be paying for this effort. We created mechanisms for the executive to evaluate their company’s return on the mentoring investment, but a strong mentoring relationship must follow Las Vegas rules.
Can this person guide me toward my professional goals?
Many people find mentors within their organizations. They have the benefit of knowing the culture and the people. They can advise on who will help them and who might take advantage of them.
An external mentor can’t do that well. But the outside resource asks questions or makes suggestions that lead an executive on their own path of discovery, and that journey can be more valuable than heavy-handed advice from within.
Executive Springboard mentors use a toolkit for leadership development, so the experience from one mentee to the next has a level of consistency. The toolkit is delivered as pre-work for each session. The point is to get executives thinking about issues at roughly the same time in their development. But there is no obligation to discuss the pre-work in the mentoring session. What carries the day in the discussion is what is on the mentee’s mind; they guide the process.
Is this person happy in his or her career?
This question caught me off guard a little bit. I had not thought of loving your job as a prerequisite for being a good mentor. And many people credit mentors with a perspective to leave toxic or dead-end positions for new opportunities. But it certainly helps if a mentor is in a positive state of mind.
As Executive Springboard became better known, leaders with highly impressive backgrounds sought us out, to join as mentors. About 25% of our mentors are still in their leadership positions. The rest have left corporate life, choosing consulting, board work, investing or retirement. Among other things, mentoring is how they give back, and they are passionate about that opportunity.
We are proud of the very strong Net Promoter Scores we have received in our mentoring work. I don’t ask mentors for the same formal feedback I receive from mentees; anecdotally, I think their experience as a mentor is at least as positive. So, I am confident in saying that Executive Springboard mentors led rewarding careers and love the opportunity to provide a legacy to the next generation of leaders.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.