Mentorship is an opportunity to build relationships and give gifts. Mentoring up, to those above you in rank or stature, may be one of your best career boosters. Really. This post will show you how to do it without getting shot for the message.
There’s a common misconception in our business culture that mentorship is a top-down activity. In The Hero’s Journey, the mentor is often case as the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman. Think Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Miyagi in The Karate Kid. In this theory, one must have achieved success to pass on wisdom to the young or the new.
If you actually research the origins of the mentor, however, you’ll find a different story. According to the fabulous writer’s tool The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, “the name ‘Mentor’, along with our word ‘mental’, stems from the Greek word for mind, ‘menos’, a marvelously flexible word that can mean intention, force or purpose. Menos also means courage.”
He illustrates why courage can be required to mentor: “Many of the Greek heroes were mentored by the centaur Chiron, a prototype for all Wise Old Men and Women. A strange mix of man and horse, Chiron was foster-father and trainer to a whole army of Greek heroes including Hercules, Actaeon, Achilles, Peleus and Aesculapius, the greatest surgeon of antiquity. In the person of Chiron, the Greeks stored many of their notions about what it means to be a Mentor. Chiron was not always well rewarded for his efforts. His violence prone pupil Hercules wounded him with a magic arrow which made Chiron beg the gods for the mercy of death.”
Here’s the idea: When you mentor others, you are a provider of knowledge to assist them in their journey. Regardless of their seniority, you do this because they need the help and no one knows everything. This is especially true when times are filled with disruptive changes.
In my experience, mentoring up has been a tool to build powerful relationships and a source of inspiration for my continual learning. When I worked at broadcast.com (1997-1999) and Yahoo (1999-2005), the Information Age was just taking hold. I poured myself into books and trade publications that gave me insights on topics such as eCommerce, permission marketing, digital technology and new media. I became wise beyond my experience in years.
When I had opportunities to sit with legacy leaders such as Howard Stringer at Sony or Jim Keys at 7-11 or Mike Rawlings at Pizza Hut, I mentored them on the new world of Internet enabled business. I shared insights from books, case studies from trade journals as well as my perspective on “how the new world would work.”
At first, much like Hercules, some of them pushed back hard. One leader wrapped up our conversation within five minutes and reacted dismissively to my suggestions. I apologized via an email and sent him a book that underscored the point I was making about the disruptive nature of eCommerce. I included my cliff notes from the book. Within a month, he invited me back and included his VP staff in the meeting. Eventually we did millions of dollars of business together.
I’ve also had the audacity to mentor my managers and even executives a few clicks above me. By mentorship, I mean that I shared information and perspectives that I felt would assist someone in solving a problem or gaining a strategic insight. Usually, it was a single point or observation, backed up by experts or statistics. I knew that because I was mentoring up, I couldn’t just make an assertion based on my experience. Only the Wise Old Tim could get away with that. It led to strengthened relationships and in one case, a champion who enabled me to become the Chief Solutions Officer of Yahoo!.
Today, you have a unique opportunity to mentor up. It might be to your customers, prospects or your bosses or executives. The world is changing fast. Digital/Cloud/Mobile/Social/Global forces disrupt business in a compressed period of time. Whether or not your superiors (I use that term loosely) know they need it, information if required for their continued success.
Or as George Clooney’s character in Our Brother Where Art Thou often said, “When times are tough, people are looking for answers.”
Here’s how to mentor up without getting hurt:
* Gather knowledge. Lots of it. Become a knowledge pack rat. If you tell someone something they already know, it’s not mentorship. If you fully commit to this, others will sense it as you share with them and be more receptive.
* Seek first to understand, then to be understood: This nugget of wisdom from Dr. Stephen Covey applies here. You need to listen to your superiors to understand what they already know, what they fear and then what they need to know. If you jump in too quickly, you may offend or worse, miss the mark completely. When mentoring up, you likely have one chance to impress.
* Make sure you are helping a benevolent hero. I’ve always looked for superiors that I respected and trusted to be the-bigger-person in any conversation. Every time I mentored up, I really wanted those legacy leaders to succeed and admired their past accomplishments. If I sensed they were mean spirited or overly defensive, I kept my trap shut. Remember Hercules.
* Be respectful and follow up with proof. No one is ignorant or stupid just because he or she isn’t yet calibrated to the times. There is a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. While he may not know how to use social media or why digitization is a threat to the core business, he can likely run circles around you in areas like finance, strategy or operations.
I’m aware of the concept of reverse mentoring, where a senior leader asks for help. But this is a different concept all together, because it’s the junior leader that takes the initiative. And that’s why it’s so much more impactful.
If you follow these simple rules, you’ll enable yourself to become closer to leaders that will help you on your journey too. My mentorship efforts to Stanley Marcus Jr. in the area of eCommerce led to him sharing insights with me about Customer Relationship Management and Talent Experience Design. As he told me in our last lunch meeting, “You’ll never get dumber by making others smarter.”