Thanks to Whitney Johnson for the below guest blog post. A very important perspective for all entrepreneurs, leaders, coaches and mentees!
This post was co-authored with Bob Moesta. While it’s written from my perspective, he was central to the development of the idea. Bob is the Managing Partner of The Re-Wired Group in Detroit, an innovation incubator and consultancy specializing in demand-side innovation. An engineer, designer, serial entrepreneur, investor, and researcher, he has developed 1,000+ products/services and has collaborated with Clay Christensen at HBS for more than 15 years.
I used to be able to say “yes” too pretty much anyone who reached out to me for mentoring. As requests increase, however, and wonderfully so, I fear that I am going to overlook those with promise who don’t quite know how to package themselves. Worse yet is the thought that I may inadvertently rebuff someone simply because I haven’t managed my time well, neglecting to give them the courtesy of a proper no.
My quandary has led to a considered, lengthy discussion with Bob Moesta, a demand-side innovation expert, about how to decide whom to mentor.
Bob sees mentoring as the balance of two worlds that overlap for a period of time and a certain amount of effort. Since he tends to think of the world in mathematical terms, we devised this equation as a starting point:
The mentee side of the equation describes: How badly does the mentee want to advance his/her career and how much ground do they feel they need to cover to get there?
Drive = How motivated is the mentee?
Distance = Where is the mentee in terms of experience vs. where they need/want to be?
The mentor side asks: Can I help and how much effort will it require?
Gap = The amount of experience the mentor has compared with the mentee.
Relevance = The distance between the mentor’s expertise and the mentee’s goal.
Effort = How much work it will take to bridge any gaps between experience or relevance.
To assess both the Drive and Distance of an aspiring protege, we’d ask two questions: What is it that you would like to learn? What experience do I have, in particular, that can be helpful to you?
To date, I have gauged drive simply by whether someone shows up and asks. This is, at best, a shoddy criterion. Some people easily ask for help but may or may not be motivated to go the distance, while others struggle with the ask but are intensely driven. My own experience as a prospective mentee bears out the importance of knowing what specific advice you want from a mentor. As a sell-side analyst at Merrill Lynch, I approached a senior executive at Merrill hoping he might support my ambition to get on a track to senior management. If I’d been able to clearly articulate what I wanted from this executive perhaps he would have responded more positively. What if I’d said, for example: “Here’s what I know today, here’s what I know you know how to do, and here’s what I’d like to learn from you so that in 3-5 years I can be in senior management.” (For some ideas on approaching a potential mentor, take a look at young up-and-comer Jill Felska’s “The Advice I’m Using to Connect with a Potential Mentor “).
If a mentee can clear the initial hurdle of having the necessary drive, and knowing what he or she wants to gain from your experience, I’d recommend one more test before saying “yes” — assign a task, such as: “Here are five papers that I’d like you to read,” and based on what you’ve read, “How would you reframe what you want to know?” Giving such an assignment tells a potential mentee that if he really wants help, he must do the work necessary to achieve his desired outcome. Reading on a particular topic also gives you a common language to tackle the issues at hand.
To assess mentor suitability — the other side of the equation — ask: Do I have the relevant experience and time to make this relationship successful?
First, estimate the level of experience of your prospective mentee versus your own (Gap). The bigger the gap (assuming a basic threshold of experience), the less effort required on your part. It may seem counterintuitive, but assuming a basic threshold of understanding, a large initial gap means that your new mentee will not push you to the brink of your experience. You have a lot more to teach someone 10 years behind you than someone two years behind you.
Now look at what your mentee wants to know (Relevance). If your realm of understanding is a bit distant from the school of experience the mentee is seeking, the relationship may not be a good fit, and you’re probably better off referring him elsewhere and/or recognizing that it will involve more of your time.
Finally, assess the level of time you’re willing to put into developing this person. Making sure you have sufficient time to give to a potential mentee is critical to a positive mentoring experience. If you know far more than the mentee, and the expertise, he is looking for, is in your sweet spot, very little energy may be required. Kristy Williams, for example, approached me through my Dare to Dream blog. She was clear about what she wanted to know and what I could teach her. In guest blogging, and asking me to push back on her ideas, she hits on a dream that she’s now in pursuing. Kristy achieved her goal, the effort on my part was minimal; the mentee side of the equation was easily greater than or equal to the mentor side.Famed founder of Intel Andy Grove recently wrote, “Whenever I hear the words mentor and mentee, I get nauseous.” Grove’s point is that the ideal mentoring relationship is more complex than a simple equation of “A helps B.” Mentoring can be given and take — both A and B teach each other and everyone benefits. Looking at it from a “jobs-to-be-done ” perspective, a prospective mentee is usually trying to get the functional job done of advancing his career. For a mentor, there’s the possibility that you may end up with a network of successful former mentees who are grateful and eager to reciprocate, but the job that typically gets done and tends to be the most important, is the emotional payback and satisfaction of sharing and seeing your experience valued.
When I asked Bob why he mentors, he said, “Largely for the pure joy of knowing that because we crossed paths, that person accomplished something they didn’t know they could.” This is also true for me. When I spend time on a candidate with an intense drive, one who knows what they want to know and why they want to learn it from me, it’s like investing in a guaranteed asset. Because while I truly enjoy investing in stocks for a living, when I can invest in people and their dreams, it’s a payback like no other.This blog post originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.