Why High-Achievers Have a Team of Mentors (Episode 20-39)
Updated: Apr 26
And how to build and expand your own team of mentors
Obviously, I am very grateful for all the things going well in my life. However, I am equally grateful for the things that don’t. For my failures. My mistakes. In my view, there is no better way to learn, then through heart-felt failure and mistakes. Those are the learnings that stick. However, we don’t have to make all the mistakes and failures ourselves. We can also learn through the failures of others. Through their experience. Through their insights.
People that are always seeking opportunities to learn and grow, develop grit based on these experiences and achieve their sometimes outrageously bold goals against all odds. What I’ve learnt over time, is that those super achievers don’t go at it alone. They might be leaders, but they are always team players who recognize their efforts are created and achieved together with others. Another thing that great achievers have in common, is that they are surrounded by people to learn from. More exact, they have mentors. More exact still, they have a team of mentors. I know in my life and work I’ve been, and am, blessed to have some amazing people around me to learn from. I wish this for anyone. For this reason, I’ve decided to write this post about mentoring, as I believe having mentors in our lives changes things without question. For the better.
‘Learning becomes the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behavior’ (Owen, 2011). Learning is accelerated through having mentors guiding and supporting us on our path. To learn more about mentoring, the mentor-mentee relationship, and how to find and be a mentor, I’ve talked with an absolute expert in this field, Ruth Gotian, the #1 Emerging Management Thinker in the world according to Thinkers 50, and an expert and advocate for mentoring. During our talk about mentoring, she shared with me what she found researching peak performance and success. As she learnt, all high achievers have mentors. Not just one, but a team of mentors around them (Gotian, 2021). Those who are mentored, out-earned, and out-performed those who are not (Gotian, 2021). They also have lower burn-out rates, greater loyalty to their organizations, they publish more if they’re academics, and they have greater satisfaction both in their jobs and their careers (Gotian, 2021).
‘If you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel together.’ - Old African proverb.
‘At its core, that is what mentoring is: traveling far, together, in a relationship of mutual learning’ (Zachary, 2011).
‘Mentoring facilitates the development of wisdom in individuals and organizations’ (Owen, 2011). Mentoring enables accelerated learning. ‘Learning is the core of mentoring. Without it, mentoring can’t exist’ (Zachary, 2011). Mentoring offers an interactive means of erudition, fitting specifically with one’s current challenges and context. ‘A mentor acts as teacher, adviser, friend and guide. The relationship [therefore] demands trust and confidentiality’ (Owen, 2011). Working together with a mentor, or even better, a team of mentors, helps us achieve our goals, enjoy guidance when we need it, receive motivation and support, tap into vast knowledge and experience, and ultimately, forms a critical element in our overall success and achievement. While writing this post, I’ve reflected on the many mentors I’ve had, and still have, throughout these years. With certainty I can say that I wouldn’t be who I am today, without them.
Learning is central in the mentor-mentee relationship
Learning forms a central element of the mentor-mentee relationship. Without [learning], mentoring can’t exist’ (Zachary, 2011). As identified by Lois Zachary, there are seven vital elements together which underpin the learner-centered mentoring paradigm (Zachary, 2011):
Reciprocity. Each partner assumes responsibility for tasks in the relationship. They both gain from working together;
Learning. Learning lies at the core of mentoring. Mentors must develop insight into how their protégés learn and how to promote learning;
Relationship. Healthy connections between two people encourage mentoring relationships, but they take time to develop;
Partnership. Mentors and those they mentor must honor each other and respect the commitments they make;
Collaboration. Both partners must work together to strengthen their relationship and share what they know. They must agree on what the protégé wants to learn and how they can together achieve those objectives;
Mutually defined goals. Mentors and mentees must define their goals at the inception of the program and continually evaluate them during their relationship;
Development. Mentoring seeks to boost mentees’ acquisition of knowledge and skills that add to their capabilities.
Team of mentors
As Ruth Gotian shared during our talk, building a team of mentors is critical for success. It sets apart the high achievers from the rest (Gotian, 2021). Ruth actually dedicated three chapters to this in her new book The Success Factor, underlining the importance hereof. Traditionally, we’d have one mentor who is older, wiser, and more senior to us. This is limiting, according to Ruth. What if that person leaves the organization in which you’re working? Instead, Choose your mentor to fit your current and actual challenge. For instance, when being faced with a challenge or question regarding the publishing of a book, talk to someone who has done this before successfully. When faced with a challenging business negotiation you need advice on, there might be another person more fit to share his or her perspective in that regard. Thus, it is always important to have a good fit for purpose.
Contrary to previous times, where traditional mentoring was on a one-on-one basis, the more beneficial form of mentoring involves different people and at different levels. Ensher and Murphy call this Power Mentoring in their book with the same name. ‘[P]ower mentoring links networks of people. They may have different backgrounds, but their goals are compatible’ (Ensher and Murphy, 2005). ‘Modern mentoring replaces conventional one-on-one mentoring with learning groups, in which everyone can be a mentor or adviser – and everybody is a learner’ (Emelo, 2015). As Ruth explained to me, the best mentoring happens at different layers.
Layers of mentoring
There are three layers of mentors that you need (Gotian, 2021). Firstly, you need mentors that are senior to you. They can teach you things, they know the politics, and understand the bigger picture. They are seasoned in their industry and have track record. Secondly, you also need mentors who are at your level, peer mentors. Peers rise together and can help and complement each other while dealing with similar challenges and situations. There are many examples of successful peer-mentoring where people grow and advance together, as peers, through continued support and shared learning over time. ‘In classic mentor-mentee relationships, the mentor is older than the mentee. However, peer mentoring or co-mentoring, in which the mentors and mentees are the same age, also can be valuable. These mentors will have different talents and experiences, and each can share knowledge that may fill in gaps in the other’s education’ (Wilson, 2015). Thirdly, you also want mentoring from people who are junior to you. They might know how to do things you don’t and are familiar with technology or social media platforms that you’re not aware of. Peer-mentoring and junior-mentoring are often overlooked when we seek knowledge and learning. However, there is a lot to be gained and shared at these layers of mentoring. Which of your peers could you learn from? And what might that young person you know have to share with you that might vastly expand your perspective? I invite you to find out.
What makes a good mentee
‘Mentoring is a process of engagement. No one can mentor without connection’ (Zachary, 2011). The human connection therefore is a critical part of the mentor-mentee relationship. This section is about what you can do as a mentee to better position yourself to a great mentor.
As Ruth shared on this topic, people like to talk. And people like to help people who they know, like, and trust (Gotian, 2021). What are you doing to get people to know, like, and trust you? That’s where our energy should be spent. At the end of the day, give more then you’re taking. There is always something we have to offer to someone, no matter how junior we are (Gotian, 2021). Give, and build relationships based on that. This will help people get to know us, like us, and ultimately trust us. As with everything, it begins with us. Give first. From there, we can find a mentor.
According to Michael Zey, the ideal traits of a mentee are intelligence, ambition, and a willingness to take risks. Building on this, according to Ensher and Murphy an aspiring mentee needs the following additional traits:
Initiative. We like to help people who help themselves and take initiatives. When someone else is full of energy and inventiveness, it’s a pleasure to be a part of that and help them along;
Energy. Be a go-getter, with good energy. This inspires others to help;
Trustworthiness. Trust is the essence of any relationship. Be your word and do as you say. This is not only important for the mentee, but equally for the mentor;
Integrity. Honesty and moral principles are critical in the mentor-mentee relationship. We want to help people who act with integrity;
High emotional intelligence. Being aware of-, and able to express- and control your emotions is a critical element in interpersonal relationships;
Optimism. No one likes someone who always sees problems instead of opportunities. Its demotivating. Instead, focus on what can be and what is possible, and people will be there to help you along the way;
Complementary skills. We like to help people who can also help us. Having complimentary abilities is beneficial in the mentor-mentee relationship.
Finding a mentor, or mentors
Having a mentor sounds like a big deal. And it is. But at the same time, it isn’t. Having a mentor, or multiple mentors even, doesn’t mean you have to have a formal relationship as such. Personally, the people whom I consider my mentors, typically have become this through long-term (work) relationships over time. Never was there a formal agreement for the mentoring process. This didn’t inhibit the learning. If anything, it probably did the opposite. Namely, when we would ask someone to be our mentor, chances are, they’ll say no, as that sounds like, and implies, a lot of responsibilities. When I asked Ruth Gotian about how to find and build a relationship with a mentor whom we are not connected with previously during our talk, she said some very interesting things.
A Mentor-mentee relationships is like dating. The best ones happen organically, and not forced (Gotian, 2021). This part really hit home for me. As Ruth explained, you don’t ask someone to formally ‘be your mentor’, like you also don’t ask someone to be your friend. That relationship grows organically. When we’d formally ask someone to be our mentor, that adds another obligation to them, and us. No one likes that. Instead, ask them for their perspective, ask them for their ideas, or ask them if you can get their thoughts on something (Gotian, 2021). In that way, we invite someone to share with us, from their field of expertise and experience, without there being pressure or an obligation. For this reason, it’s also always useful to emphasize that declining your request is perfectly fine, and that you understand if they are busy. What you’ll see however is that everyone is willing to give their thoughts on something and offer their perspective. Especially if they have expertise in that field. I know this from experience. Don’t over-ask though. Be very modest in your request. Some questions that might help you are for instance, are:
Could I ask you for your perspective regarding XYZ?
I’ve read your work on ABC and would greatly appreciate a quick opportunity to ask you a few questions about this. Would you have 15 minutes for a call on […]?
Could I please have just 20 minutes of your time to go over this?
Is there someone else who you think would be helpful for me to talk to?
When you get a reference from someone, you could add, I want to make sure that you look good, because you’ve made this introduction. Could we quickly discuss XYZ?
I also really like this one, taken from Ruth Gotian’s article for Harvard Business Review on finding a mentor stuck working from home: Dear [insert name], I saw your post on XYZ regarding your work on ABC. I work on DEF and was interested in how I might be able to implement your technique. Might you have 15 minutes for a quick phone chat to discuss? I’d be grateful for your perspective.
Make it easy for them to say yes. Make it easy and worthwhile for them to help you. You can suggest several dates and times for them to choose from, keeping in mind their time zones and possible obligations. Also, it’s our responsibility to make our mentor(s) look good when they use their political or social capital to introduce us to someone (Gotian, 2021). Recognize that it’s not only your own reputation at stake, but also theirs.
Finding a mentor while working from home
During my talk on mentoring with Ruth Gotian, she addressed the difficulties of finding a mentor in current times. With many in-person events currently cancelled due to COVID-19, the bulk of our (new) connections are made virtually. There are plenty of webinars, LinkedIn Live’s and other online events with breakout rooms where we can connect with a potential mentor. For instance, you can reach out via LinkedIn to the speaker via the messaging function, either before, or after the talk. Ruth emphasized to also not forget about the other people in the audience. They all are interested in the same topic as you. See in the comments who made thoughtful remarks or raised good questions or opened your mind through something they wrote or said. Reach out to them. In her Harvard Business Review article on the topic, Ruth also suggests reaching out to your friend’s friends (or the second level connections on LinkedIn). The possibility of a warm introduction can help enforce a mentor relationship built on trust. Gotian also suggests reconnecting with people from your school. ‘Many of these could be dormant ties — people you used to know but lost contact with over time. Just like you, they and their networks have likely evolved with the passage of time’ (Gotian, 2020).
Key elements of a successful mentor-mentee relationship
First of all, there needs to be trust between the mentor and mentee. They need to have each other’s interest at heart, and always back-up each other. It comes back to the know-like-and-trust factor, as Ruth Gotian shared during our talk on the topic. It’s also important that when one reaches out to the other, follow-up is quick. Get back in a reasonable timeframe. Don’t be threatened by collaboration with other people. A mentor should never me threatened by their mentee’s success. Instead, they should celebrate it. A mentor should believe in you more than you do in yourself (Gotian, 2021).
On mentoring successfully
As Ruth Gotian shared during our talk, there are three levels of mentoring. We learn from people senior to us, from our peers, and from people junior to us. In any of these relationships, learning is a two-way street. When we mentor someone, it’s good to be mindful of the process. John Maxwell, who has sold over 19 million books and is the author of Mentoring 101 identified nine steps for a successful mentoring process (Maxwell, 2008). Find these steps below:
Make people development your top priority. It’s easy to support someone who’s winning. But it makes all the difference when someone is struggling. Help people reach their objectives and overcome their struggles. This helps you too;
Limit who you take along. You don’t have time to mentor everyone. Choose the people with the most promise;
Develop relationships before starting out. Mentoring works best when the mentor and the person he or she mentors like each other. As mentioned by Ruth, we want to help people who we know, like, and trust;
Give help unconditionally. Mentoring calls for focusing on helping someone else. Don’t expect anything in return;
Let them fly with you for a while. Mentees will learn best when they see their mentors in action. Explain, show as well as share what you are doing. Teach by example;
Put fuel in their tank. I really like this. Provide resources, including books, recordings and videos. Help them to learn and grow, and provide inspiration;
Stay with them until they can solo successfully. Make sure your mentees are ready before you let them strike out on their own;
Clear the flight path. Give mentees directions on what to do and how to do it. Then let them go. All the training in the world will provide limited success unless we are able to apply it in the real world;
Help them repeat the process. After you successfully mentor people, encourage your graduates to mentor someone else. Pay it forward is an important part of mentoring, and offers a great way to learn more, by helping and teaching others.
Not a lifetime commitment
There is no fixed timespan for a mentor-mentee relationship. Some last a lifetime, and some are shorter, more focused on a particular phase of our life and work. As Ruth explained, some mentors will be with us forever. But we don’t call on them forever (Gotian, 2021). Some of our mentors early in life and career might not have the right guidance for the situations later in our lives and careers. As we start advancing in our careers, new mentors will be of benefit, suitable and fitting with our existent contexts. When mentors are assigned, there has to be an exit round, a way for both mentor and mentee to signal if things are not working. We can also transition from mentor to friend, as Ruth Gotian explained, something I can attest to from personal experience. Independent of the duration of the relationship, always be sure to express gratitude and appreciation. And as mentioned before, the best way to thank your mentor is by making them proud and look good. Achieve your goals and exceed expectations.
Lastly, the mentor-mentee relationship is not a transactional one. A mentor helps you because he or she want to. Make sure that when they do something for you, such as provide you with an introduction or help you gain a new perspective, you thank them for it. This is very important, and it doesn’t take much. Follow-up is critical in this regard. Be sure to do this in a timely manner. It matters. Apart from this, the best way to thank someone who helped you is by achieving your objective for which they offered their assistance and perspective. Make them proud and look good, always. ‘Be animated, upbeat and polite. Send prompt thank-you notes’ (Ensher and Murphy, 2005). Finally, ‘[m]entors should encourage those they mentor to pay it forward by mentoring others’ (Maxwell, 2008). Who did you learn from? And how can you pay it forward?
Image: 'Mentor', acrylic on canvas by Connie Geerts.
To learn more about mentoring, the mentor-mentee relationship, and how to find and be a mentor, I’ve talked with an absolute expert in this field, Dr. Ruth Gotian, the #1 Emerging Management Thinker in the world according to Thinkers 50, and an expert and advocate for mentoring. Ruth has a weekly show called Optimizing Success and is one of the driving forces behind ‘The Mentor Project’ and the podcast with the same name, aiming to promote free Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education worldwide.
Ruth is also the author of ‘The Success Factor: Developing the Mindset and Skillset for Peak Business Performance’. She is also the former Assistant Dean of Mentoring and Executive Director of the Mentoring Academy at Weill Cornell Medicine where she is currently the Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education in Anesthesiology.
During this great talk I learnt a lot. Especially how and where to connect with possible mentors and why having a team of mentors around us matters so much. Please enjoy, and use these insights for your benefit and don’t forget to pay it forward!
Website of Dr. Ruth Gotian: https://www.ruthgotian.com
The Mentor Project website: https://mentorproject.org
Emelo, Randy, 2015, Modern Mentoring. https://amzn.to/3dHz2cY
Ensher, Ellen and Murphy, Susan, 2005, Power Mentoring. https://amzn.to/31SPAvA
Gotian, Ruth, 2020, How Do You Find a Decent Mentor When You’re Stuck at Home? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/08/how-do-you-find-a-decent-mentor-when-youre-stuck-at-home, accessed on 11 December 2021.
Gotian, Ruth, 2022, The Success Factor. https://amzn.to/3pR4o6v
Maxwell, John, 2008, Mentoring 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know. https://amzn.to/3Gybun4
Owen, Hilarie, 2011, The Complete Guide to Mentoring. https://amzn.to/31Sarzt
Wilson, Peter, 2015, Make Mentoring Work. https://amzn.to/3IGVlxG
Zachary, Lois, 2011, The Mentor’s Guide. https://amzn.to/3GwT8CU