When mentoring goes wrong: lessons for young managers

04 February 2016 -


The mentor-mentee relationship can be mutually beneficial for all involved but, if managed in the wrong way, mentoring can become a career hindrance rather than a career boost

Jermaine Haughton

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett had Benjamin Graham, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer had Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and, perhaps most famously, Luke Skywalker had the mentorship of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Whether in reality, fiction, business or Hollywood, successful mentor-mentee relationships have often propelled their young protégés to stardom. But when it goes wrong, it can leave a nasty taste in the mouths of all parties.

For young managers, being given guidance from an experienced and well-respected mentor is often perceived as the gold-studded pathway to greater visibility, exciting assignments and big promotions.

Salesman Merv Williams’ less-than-fruitful mentor relationship, however, provides a cautionary of what can go wrong.

Fresh from a big move into his first junior management role for a data processing and software company, the 29-year-old was given a helping hand by a fellow manager with 15 years of experience under his belt.

“New job, new colleagues, new home – it was all a whirlwind,” said Williams. “Having an experienced mentor was crucial for helping me adapt, and settle in as quickly as possible. Particularly in the first six months when I was struggling massively to reach targets and get the best out of my team; having a confidential source to lean on for advice was amazing.”

By the end of Williams’ first year, his fortune began to turn, and he began reaching, and surpassing, his sales targets. After another 18 months, his team had not just became one of the organisation’s biggest sellers, but had also brought in a new money-spinning long term client to the business, pricking the attention of senior managers and directors.

“That’s when things began to change a bit,” said Williams. “The consensus around the office was that I was set to be promoted into a much more senior role, passing colleagues who had been at the company for decades.

“Suddenly, my mentor was quite distant and disruptive.”

Williams accused his mentor of spreading rumours about his unsuitability for senior management positions at the firm, turning some employees against him, as well as continually being troublesome in meetings to assert his dominance.

Having guided his ascent, the mentor was now blocking his protégé’s move to a truly senior role. “It created a toxic atmosphere. It was unworkable,” Williams concluded.

Fast forward three months, and Williams had resigned.

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According to Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour at Insead business school, mentors can hold us back as often as they push us forward.

She said: “Insecure about their own position and overwhelmed by the demands on their time, too many bosses today fail to pull up the promising people below.”

Of course, not all mentors are bad. In fact, many have been successful.

High-flying trader Jacki Zehner, who became the first female partner at Goldman Sachs; rising to the role in just eight years, credits a senior mentor for convincing her not give up on her Wall Street dreams, after she was intimidated and harassed by a colleague.

Moreover, a study published in the January 2013 edition of Academic Medicine by UCSF professor Mitchell D. Feldman, found that junior staff with mentors attained more than a 10-point difference in career satisfaction compared to their peers who do not, as well as boosts in motivation and respect.

But when it does go wrong, there can be a number of reasons why the mentor-mentee relationship broke down.

Here are four tips for young managers looking to avoid the perils of bad mentorship.

Just one mentor?

No one mentor is perfect, and in an ever-evolved technological and globalised workplace, having a number of different mentors who specialise in different areas that interest you can provide diverse ideas and perspectives on ways you can be a better manager.

Equally, if a mentor tries to sabotage a protégé's career, the protégé can turn to another mentor for backing.

Provide structure

Whether the mentor relationship is formal or informal, both parties should outline their objectives and goals from the very beginning, as well as negotiate set times and venues to meet.

By structuring mentor sessions, it makes the process more official and ordered, allowing for both parties to prepare themselves appropriately.

Think critically

Mentoring is a great opportunity for protégés to gain invaluable advice. However, just because their mentor is more experienced and established in management does not mean everything they advise will work out.

Mentees should assess the pros and cons of all advice and how it fits their ambitions, personality and style.

Be aware of early problems

Is your mentor constantly dismissing your ambitions? Constantly rescheduling meet-ups, or simply doesn't seem interested in you? If so, your mentor may be a bad match.

If you are eager to prolong the relationship, be open in discussing your doubts and try to find a mutual compromise.

Ask for help

Make sure to reach out to HR or an alternative senior member of staff if you are having worries. If conflicts do occur, getting help from human resources to arbitrate any disagreements is the ideal solution.

You can find out more about the CMI’s mentoring programme for members, here

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