image: trumzz/Getty Images/Build A Mentoring Relationship With A Leader You Admire
Years ago when I taught a graduate leadership course in Seattle, one of my students asked me to be his mentor. This was about a week after the class had ended. It was clear that the question was difficult for him. Throughout the course, he appeared disinterested in my teaching, aloof, and often scoffed at the materials I presented. I’d assumed that he didn’t like the course or me.
But what caught me off guard that day was his sincerity. He explained that he’d had some bad experiences with mentors in the past. He came to realize that the people he had reached out to and admired weren’t genuinely interested in helping him grow. And they usually wanted something in return: free labor, an ego boost, the chance to feel important.
Trusting someone he wanted to learn from was still difficult. But he’d found the courage to ask me anyway. His vulnerability was disarming. I’d never been formally asked to “mentor” anyone and I felt like a fraud. I feared that if he knew my many flaws and insecurities, I’d end up being yet another disappointment.
Reluctantly, I agreed and decided I could simply hide those parts of myself.
Trust, Vulnerability And Growth In Mentoring Relationships
It wasn’t until months later, when we had built a foundation of trust, that I felt comfortable enough to follow his example. Sick of carrying around my angst, I confessed my fears about being the “perfect” mentor. As it turned out, the last thing he wanted was my perfection. He wanted me to be human, to see how I dealt with my shortfalls, and grew to trust me more because I acknowledged them.
I tell this story because I understand how complicated relationships between different generations can be in academic and professional settings. We spend a great deal of time comparing what we each have to offer to one another, and to the world.
In academia, young students want professors to help them make sense of the world. While their professors are worried about keeping up with their publishing demands.
At work, many emerging leaders feel those senior to them stand in their way. While those in senior roles privately question their relevance in the face of younger, tech-savvy newcomers. Such is the dilemma that both sides faces in an effort to build a mentoring relationship.
It Is Beyond The Legacy Or Wisdom Of Older Leaders, We Need Each Other
The irony is that the legacy of older leaders is only secured through helping the young ones reach their potential. And the opportunity to fulfill your potential as a young leader can be realized much more fully if you make an effort to inherit the wisdom of your predecessors. We need each other to feel like we both matter.
If a senior leader you want to connect with hasn’t figured that out yet, there are ways to help them, as my mentee helped me. Of course, all generations have more work to do in this area. These connections can only be made if both sides build bridges and make an effort to understand our mutual wants and differences.
But right now, I want to empower you, the young leader, with a few tools that I’ve seen help lay the foundation.
Test Your Assumptions And Labels.
Chances are, if you’ve struggled to connect with a particular older leader, you’ve formed biases about them. You may have interpreted some of their behavior as off-putting, unapproachable, or disinterested in you. While your concerns may very well be valid, it’s also important to check yourself before completely writing them off.
I initially interpreted my student’s aloofness as disinterest. When in fact, it was the opposite. You may be surprised by what you find when you dig a little deeper.
Before shutting the door on a relationship with an older employee, put yourself in their shoes. Could you be misinterpreting where they are coming from? Are you projecting some of your own anxiety or misgivings onto them?
If you have any connection with someone who knows them better, check in with them to find out more to test your beliefs. Make sure that your criteria for judging their behavior isn’t based on how similar or different they are from you. The things that are different about them, may end up being the most valuable.
Use Vulnerability, Not Just Confidence, To Build Credibility
Many emerging leaders feel the best way to win the approval of older leaders is to appear confident, smart, and assertive. But that can backfire. It can come across as entitled or overly self-assured.
After asking me to be his mentor, my graduate student went on to confess that his behavior during our class was his way of trying to prove that he didn’t need help. He told me, “It’s funny, I was looking to be developed and led by trying to convince both of us that I needed neither.” His humility deeply impressed me.
What will show more seasoned leaders your maturity and credibility is being vulnerable. Being able to openly talk about what you don’t know. Asking for help in places you feel unsure, and acknowledging areas you need to improve. While that may feel risky, older leaders know that there’s only so much legitimately earned confidence, someone who is early in their career will have. Faking more than you have will only make others less likely to trust you.
Demonstrating that you know your limitations by being confident enough to ask for help indicates you are trustworthy and open to learning. If you are struggling with a project, for instance, you might say, “I’d love to get your input on this. I’m feeling really good about these parts, but I haven’t had enough experience in this area and I know that it’s your expertise.”
Avoid Complete Deference
On the other hand, extreme deference can create distance. In some cases, it can make you come across as a suck up. In others, it establishes a formality that makes senior leaders feel as though they always have to “be on” when they are around you.
Believe it or not, deference triggers a sense of imposter syndrome, a fear many older leaders have (that they aren’t worthy of the role they are in). This was my struggle in my relationship with my graduate student.
Recommended: Mentoring During A Crisis – Place Of Self And Mentee
You want to be someone that older leaders can feel safe with. Someone who they can be themselves around. When leaders across generations can learn to be vulnerable with one another, it can be transformational.
Find Common Ground
What many emerging leaders long for is to feel respected by older leaders.
Creating “peership” with older leaders — approaching them as equals without being cocky and showing respect for their seniority without being overly deferent — is one of the hardest parts of these relationships.
To establish mutuality, learn about their lives outside of work. If they have pictures of their family in their office, ask about them. Or, if you’re on a video call and one of their kids walks in the room, use that chance to learn more about their life. To build a mentoring relationship that will last long, also find out what interests they have outside of work.
When my student and I were first getting to know each other, I was still a newcomer to Seattle. My family and I were steeped in boxes from our move to the new city and he offered to help. As we unpacked boxes of books in my office, he asked about my clients and the work I did. It became a ritual for us to sit on the floor in front of the bookcase and tell stories of leaders facing real-life challenges.
Shared humanity is a great way to establish common ground, setting the foundation for a strong relationship. It also helps neutralize any hierarchical differences without ignoring them. You can show respect for your differences in experience by asking about their career choices and how they’ve approached their development.
Ask For What You Need
As simple as it sounds, seasoned leaders love when younger leaders cut to the chase and ask for what they want. If you want more time with someone, ask for it within reason. You probably can’t get an hour a week, but you might get an hour a month. With such baby steps, you will build a mentoring relationship that is fulfilling.
If you want more opportunities to have your ideas heard, ask for it. You can say, “I know our meetings are very full, but sharing my ideas is an area I need to grow in. Sometimes we move so fast that I don’t feel comfortable jumping into the fray. I wonder if we could set aside 15 minutes in an upcoming meeting for me to share an idea and engage the team?”
What Rejection Actually Mean
If you fear your request will be denied, you’re not alone. Many emerging leaders are afraid of the feeling of rejection that comes with that denial. Instead of personalizing silence, or a “no” answer, ask the other person to help you understand.
Whatever their response, they likely have your best interest in mind. You may have to ask several times to make something happen. This is why you should always ask with a level of respect, and explain why your request makes sense. Any hint of insistence, entitlement, or sulking if your request isn’t granted, is more likely to be met with resistance.
Remember that your desire to connect with more experienced colleagues is worthy and admirable. You are beginning to walk your way to build a mentoring relationship that is mutually beneficial. You are striving to learn from them, to offer something in return, and to broaden your network beyond your peers. Learning how to make those desires known to senior leaders takes practice, but it’s a skill you will use all your life.
It may feel risky, and at times, it will feel uncomfortable. But that discomfort is the same thing that will make your relationship go from enjoyable to transformational.
Start Now, Start Small. Keep It Friendly, Informal And Enjoyable
It takes some work to build a mentoring relationship. But you can start small. Who is a more experienced professional or leader that you admire? Someone you’d want to emulate? Whose career has made you think differently about your own?
Reach out to them. Let them know how they, and their work have influenced you. And then, ask for a 20-minute virtual coffee. Prepare one or two questions to ask them. Keep it friendly and informal. Let them feel enjoyed, and help them to enjoy you. Some of the greatest relationships of our lives start with a simple question over a cup of coffee.
Click to read the original script @ Harvard Business Review – Build a Relationship With a Senior Leader You Admire by Ron Carucci
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