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Who's Mentoring Whom?

One of the scariest truths about leadership is that when you are a leader other people are watching what you do. Whether you intend to be or not, you are role modeling behaviors in everything you do.

For this reason, many leaders make the mistake of putting themselves into mentor roles exclusively. They step out of mentee roles, implying that they already know everything they need to know and that no one could teach them anything of value going forward.

That's a terrible example to set!
Just think of what it suggests if you are above being mentored. First, to everybody else around you, it signals that you are disinterested in what they could teach you. It implies that you, and only you, have the answers. Second, this attitude is elitist and self-limiting. There should never be a point in time when you stop learning or show a disregard for what others can teach you.
Finally, if you are above mentoring and others are following your lead, you limit those around you, too. They will be less open to learning from others if you model a disinterest in doing so yourself.
The pushback I hear most often from senior leaders is that there is no one left to mentor them. They have reason to - they're in the highest ranks of leadership (management) and/or they are older than others around them.
But whoever said that mentors had to be senior in years or in stature?
Mentoring is best done by someone with more experience or knowledge in a specific subject area. That's not the same as someone with the broadest general experience or knowledge.
One of the most successful mentor/mentee pairings I have witnessed involved a 55-year-old GM being mentored by a 32-year-old first-time manager. The credentials of the mentor, this "green" manager? He had superior country/culture knowledge and expertise in a scientific specialty that was not the bailiwick of the GM.
What made this pairing successful was the GM's willingness to learn and his respect for his younger mentor. At first, as you can imagine, the young mentor was intimidated and did not wish to offend the GM by "talking down" to him. But they worked through it, setting their own ground rules for the reverse mentoring arrangement. Over time, this dramatically accelerated the GM's understanding of key business issues.
The secondary benefit, which was also unexpected, is that the GM earned widespread admiration and appreciation for his humility. Others across the company recognized his openness to learning and his vulnerability in choosing a younger mentor.
Without planning it, new mentorships popped up across the company, often following this same formula. People picked mentors based on subject matter expertise and set aside their egos to do so. A huge unspoken barrier to cross-functional learning swept across the organization.
Give reverse mentoring a try. You may find you have accepted it already as your children teach you about your newest technology or social media tools, for example. In the workplace, be more deliberate about selecting a mentor, setting up the mentor/mentee relationship, and modeling to others how we all have something we can learn from one another.

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