Mentor, Hero or Bum? You Decide

Mentor, hero, or bum

Mentor gone bad

Early in my consulting career, I connected with a manager in my firm that I considered a mentor.  He had many years of consulting and business experience under his belt.  I would go to him regularly for advice and he willingly shared his knowledge.

I didn’t report directly to him, but a friend of mine did.  One day she told me how he had unfairly reprimand her in front of some peers.  She was humiliated and I was surprised that he would be such a jerk.

As a result, I quit turning to him for advice.  In fact, I quit believing in mentors altogether for a while.

At that stage in my career, I had a concept in my mind that a mentor was one person that took you under his or her wing and bestowed wisdom on a need to know basis.

As I moved on, I worked with other people who became mentors without my even realizing it.  As a result, I learned a few things about mentoring.

Accept flaws in your mentor

Some people tend to think of a mentor as a guru on a mountain top who is all-knowing and all-seeing.  In reality, mentors are human beings.  They will make mistakes and do things you disagree with.

I didn’t like how my first mentor talked to my co-worker, but he still could have provided me with knowledge about career management, customer service and the consulting industry in general

I expected perfection. And when I found an imperfection, I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – deal with it.  I could have continued to learn more from him despite his flaws.

Select more than 1 mentor based on strengths

You don’t have to have one mentor.  If you know someone who is a great sales person, develop a relationship with that person to learn more about how to sell.  Do you know someone else with great leadership skills?  Link up with them and try to learn some leadership tips from them.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Work with multiple people with varied strengths to maximize your learning.  As a bonus, you might also learn by observing your mentor’s mistakes.

You may outgrow your mentors

Just because someone knows more than you at some point in your career, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.  Careers can be like a foot race.  Some people start out strong and peter out early.  Others don’t get their momentum until late in the game.  You may find that you have eclipsed your mentor’s career advancement at some point.

Your mentor’s ten years of experience might actually be one year of experience, ten times over.  You might be able to switch roles and mentor back to the mentor, but as you grow, you need to always seek out mentors that are ahead of you in knowledge and experience in the areas that you want to grow.

Your mentoring needs may change as you grow in your career.  If one of your mentors takes a different path in their career, they may still be growing, but have interests that are not aligned enough with yours to provide meaningful help.

You can simultaneously be a mentor & mentee

In school, if you were good in math and your friend was good at science, you could help each other in your respective strengths.  Everyone has some expertise in some area that someone else may be interested in.  If you work with someone that has complementary skills to yours, there’s nothing wrong with learning from each other.

All advice is optional, even from a mentor

Some people may decide to be your mentor whether you’re interested in their advice or not.  Even people that you choose to be your mentor will not be right 100% of the time.  Advice is simply a suggestion.

An approach that worked for someone else in a similar situation won’t necessarily work for you.  It’s not a sign of disrespect to take a pass on a mentor’s advice.  A good mentor understands that.  If they don’t and are overly offended by your resistance, you may be better off finding a mentor who doesn’t see their own advice as gospel.

Pay it forward

If you only suck the knowledge and experience from others without sharing yours, you are depriving the next generation of valuable opportunities.  You are also hurting yourself.

Sharing your knowledge with others, whether it’s a direct report, a peer or a manager, creates a more intelligent and more collaborative work environment.  You also might find that it just feels good to help someone out in their career like you have been helped in the past.

See my related post: What is a Mentor?

My first mentor – and every mentor after that – had flaws.  We all do.  But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t provide excellent advice. I deprived myself of continuing to get good advice because I disagreed with his management approach in one instance.  Mentors don’t know everything, but everyone has something they can share to help others out.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

What has been your experience with mentors?  I welcome your comments below. 

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