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Power Mentoring: How to Get the Most Out of a Mentoring Relationship


Last updated 8/5/2010

Today’s fast-paced business world demands a new kind of mentoring relationship, one that still benefits from traditional mentoring efforts but also addresses the needs of a highly mobile workforce. In their book Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Protégés Get the Most Out of Their Relationships (John Wiley & Sons), authors Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy offer guidelines for creating a mentoring relationship for today’s business realities.

In an interview, Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy shared some insights for AMA’s members:

What is "power mentoring"? How is that different from mentoring?
Traditional mentoring is a one-on-one relationship where an older person takes the younger under his or her wing. The relationship is one-way, with the mentor usually giving more than he or she gets in the relationship. The protégé usually waits for guidance from the mentor rather than take the lead in the relationship. In contrast, power mentoring is about having a broad network of various types of mentors.

Further, power mentoring relationships are characterized by reciprocity and an active protégé role. We identify 10 unique types of power mentors in our book, including boss mentors, reverse mentors, e-mentors, group mentors, mentors for hire, inspirational mentors, family-member mentors, barrier-busting mentors, peer and step-ahead mentors and mentors of the moment. Power mentoring is particularly appropriate for today’s dynamic careers. Individuals involved in such relationships understand that mentoring is a powerful method for advancing one’s career, and they approach mentoring as they would any important career development activity: they set goals and they make sure the relationship works so that both mentor and protégé gain what they need.

How does coaching employees differ from mentoring protégés?
Mentoring protégés is more complicated than coaching employees in many ways. For instance, coaching an employee is limited to a number of work-related behaviors. Let’s say that you want Joe or Joan to get their work completed on time to meet end-of-the-month deadlines.

Coaching employees can also be for the purpose of preparing an employee for his or her next job. In mentoring, a mentor would use coaching as one method for improving their protégé’s overall career performance; therefore, coaching could be used for work as well as nonwork related issues.

What other skills are critical to power mentoring?
In addition to coaching behavior, which includes giving feedback effectively, there are time management, goal setting and interpersonal skill development. One of the most important for both sides of the relationship is relationship-building skills.

What traits are critical in a power mentor? Why should an executive or a manager take on the role of power mentor?
The traits critical to a power mentor are good communication skills, emotional intelligence, patience and the motivation to see others do well. Our power mentors also identified 10 characteristics of excellent protégés, including intelligence, ambition, desire and ability to accept power and risk, initiative, energy, trustworthiness, integrity, high emotional intelligence, optimism and complementary skills.

A manager should take on the role of a power mentor because there are a number of positive benefits that can accrue to him or her personally. Among them are reputation enhancement, being seen as a developer of talent and conduit to another generation or part of the organization, the creation of a cadre of loyal supporters, an active participant in succession planning and the personal satisfaction from helping others grow and develop.

Why is mentoring so important in today's companies?
There are fewer career levels and individuals do not plan to be in their organizations a long time. Because people move from company to company, they need to find a network of mentors, possibly outside of their organizations, to help them in their careers.

Research shows that organizations in which mentoring flourishes gain significantly in terms of increased recruitment, retention, better productivity and overall more engaged and committed employees.

What should mentors look for in a protégé?
Mentors typically fall into the all-too-human trap of looking for a “mini me” to mold and develop and often find themselves attracted to those who are most like themselves. In contrast, power mentors consciously make an effort to form relationships with protégés who are different from themselves and have complementary skills that they can learn.

Mentors should also look for protégés that are worth mentoring. They need to find protégés who are appreciative of the relationship and can give back to the mentor and provide him or her with a window into other aspects of the organization or profession.

What are some mistakes that mentors make?
One common mistake is not considering what they might get out of the relationship. Both mentors and protégés also need to be aware of the danger of having mismatched expectations and/or philosophical approaches about mentoring. For example, if the mentor looks at mentoring as a doctor/patient relationship and the protégé sees it as a meeting of equal minds, this can lead to serious problems.

Also, mentors need to be aware of a body of research known as the dark side of mentoring and avoid negative behaviors such as taking advantage of the protégé, bullying, sabotage or jealousy.

Do you set goals in a mentoring relationship as you might in a supervisory one? If so, what kinds of goals should you consider?
Goals are very important in the mentoring relationship. Both mentors and protégés should set goals early on in the relationship and then be prepared to adjust them as the relationship moves forward. Goals should be specific to the wants, needs and abilities of the mentors and protégés.  Typical goals might be around learning a new skill, receiving feedback or positioning one’s self for future success.

Setting goals together is an important but difficult part of the process, especially if the goals of the mentor and protégé don’t mesh. Both the mentor and the protégé need to use their individual processes of discernment and then openly and honestly discuss areas of overlap and clarify what is reasonable and what is not.

Why are organizations setting up mentoring programs? What are the corporate advantages?
As we have found over and over, organizations gain an important method for succession planning in identifying the next level of leadership. They retain good employees who care about the organization and want to both succeed in their careers and help the organization succeed.

Ellen A. Ensher is an associate professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Coauthor Susan Elaine Murphy is an associate professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College and the associate dean of the Henry R. Kravis Leadership Institute in Claremont. Their book Power Mentoring is published by John Wiley & Sons.