Unleashing Leader Potential With Mentoring

No more lone cowboys!  Mentoring allows leaders to walk their own paths while enjoying the comfort and wisdom of those before them.

Pia Lappalainen, 20.08.2020

No man is an island……..Without followers, there are no leaders…….. Great leaders don’t operate in a vacuum……….. And yet most leaders feel extremely lonely in their positions, carrying on their shoulders the heavy weight and responsibility inherent in leadership. At the end of the day, they are the lone cowboys that ride west into the setting sun, the horse being their only companion.

Despite the advent and popularity of shared leadership and distributed leadership as concepts, the managerial responsibility is still, in reality, far from being shared or distributed. The resulting loneliness and isolation are adversaries and undesired outcomes that pose risks to leader talent retention, high performance and well-being.

It is no consolation that people generally dismiss this burden as a mere and self-evident downside of having pursued a career where one’s efforts are compensated for – allegedly - so extravagantly. No, they don’t want to be paid for feeling lonely!

On rare occasions, managing individuals might confide in their closest ones about the hardships that come with their posts, but more open and public discussion on the organizational level is hurdled by several reasons.

First, on the higher ladders in the pyramids called organizations, peers with identical experiences are simply fewer in number than on the grassroots-level.

Second, competition becomes tougher on the top ranks, making individuals cautious about sharing their vulnerabilities and trusting anyone with their darkest secrets.

Third, it is not customary or culturally accepted for leaders to open up about their struggles in operating environments where strength and assertiveness are valued.

Finally, reliance on other people has not traditionally been considered a predictor of good leadership, which is why the current recruitment mode is biased towards individuals who persistently and stubbornly stand alone, strong. Our leadership culture is still plagued by the lonely cowboy ideal – but this is not the wild west but rather the teamwork-oriented north!

As a response to the resultative, unspoken managerial cry for help, many companies have begun to invest in mentoring. Naturally mentoring is an ages-old method of supporting novices but currently more systemacy and science is being added to the mentoring framework to enhance its utility, effect and benefits.

Mentoring benefits

At its best, mentoring can yield benefits for both the mentée and the mentor as personal, emotional, cognitive and psychological growth. The mentée receives personal and professional guidance that is tailored to his or her unique needs.

These needs generally stem from vulnerabilities, weaknesses and insecurities that undermine the full use of mentée resources. When these needs are met, novices can unleash their potential and begin to use their personal capacity in full force. Eventually positive gains can be identified as faster induction, career progress, decrease in undesirable conduct and increase in desirable behavior.

A mentoring program is a two-way street, benefiting also the mentors. The reciprocality and genuine dialogue with the junior peer allows them to shake and question old habits and take new perspectives. It may also give them confidence and strengthen personal capabilities. Many find the process mentally rewarding as a channel of crystallizing their own values and (working) life philosophy.

Mentors high on empathy find pleasure in ensuring a smooth start for a new-comer by imparting explicit knowledge and passing on tacit knowledge – for them, giving matters more than taking. As a doctor once noted: “Patients are our best teachers.”

What is mentoring

As a world characterized by drive, ambition and aspiration, the corporate life provides a fruitful ground for a multitude of processes that support professional development and pursuit of also personal aspirations. Among them, mentoring is gaining ground but is still often mistaken for and confused with methods such as coaching, professional guidance, consultancy, counselling and supervision. The table below puts in a nutshell what mentoring is and what it is not.

Tools applied in mentoring

Pedagogically mentors are midwives and gardeners who only nurture what is already there, patiently waiting for and helping deliver what could be to emerge. Methodologically mentoring is facilitative, meaning that mentors refrain themselves from direct instruction and explicit advice. An interesting note here that well explains the underlying philosophy: many theories call mentées actors – yes, the ones who act! Contrary to common understanding, they are not passive recipients.  

This is why the selected tools aim to ensure empowerment, self-leadership, freedom of choice and independent decision-making, implying the mentors must take caution in not planting their own ideas in the protegées heads. The aim is not to ensure correct action in the eyes of the mentor but to question one’s thinking, trigger new perspectives and foster reframing.  This happens through reciprocality, mutual exchange and bilateral engagement, gently pushing both parties’ thinking from retrospective sense-making to proactive sense-building.

The related tools are diverse. Technically they are founded on self-analysis, questioning and reflexive practice but take an abundance of different forms, depending on whether the mentoring session aims e.g. at reframing, innovating, ensuring well-being or activating networks.

Regardless of the tool, however, the primary precondition for successful mentoring is psychological safety. Both parties should be able to feel vulnerable, without fear of losing face or status in the conversation. Confidentiality is a critical prerequisite in any professional setup and trust fundamental personally and to avoid exaggerated or incorrect interpretations – individuals can only expand their capabilities and horizons by taking personal risks.

On the secure ground of psychological safety rests a step-by-step method that provides a predefined yet flexible structure for the sessions. It moves from atmosphere building and agenda setting towards concrete, activating practises and finally action planning, all stemming from the mentée needs.

Well-informed mentors then make wise decisions to pick instruments that meet the unique and current needs at hand, depending on whether the mentée is in need of e.g. prioritizing, self-analysis, challenging, analysis of limiting beliefs, mirroring, or discussion of general life pursuits, motivational factors or emotional blocks.  

Final remarks

Understanding the core ideology behind mentoring requires a new stance to professional development where the object becomes the subject and the teacher becomes the learner. Instead of centering on what is explicit, known and validated, mentoring revolves around what is tacit, implicit, and emergent. The inherent reciprocality and intersubjectivity allow both the mentor and the méntee to rewrite their capacities and futures, turning potential into applicable resources and promises into deliverables.  

Perhaps the underlying philosophy and gains for both the mentee and the mentor can best be summarized through the words of Baxter and Montgomery (1996): “I become myself only by revealing myself to another, through another and with another’s help.”

Dr. Pia Lappalainen is Senior Advisor, Aalto University Executive Education and Docent of Performance Management. Mentoring is one of the methods that can be used in Aalto EE's customized solutions.

Reading tips on mentoring

  • Clutterbuck, D. (2005). Establishing and maintaining mentoring relationships: an overview of mentor and mentee competencies. Journal of Human Resource Management, 3(3), 2-9.
  • Dimas, I.; Rebelo, T.; Lourenco, P.; Pessoa, P.  (2018). Bouncing Back from Setbacks: On the Mediating Role of Team Resilience in the Relationship Between Transformational Leadership and Team Effectivenes. Journal of Psychology, Interdisciplinary and Applied, 152(6), 358-372.
  • Eby, L.; Allen, T.; Evans, S.; Ng, T. (2008). Does Mentoring Matter? A Multidisciplinary Meta-Analysis Comparing Mentored and Non-Mentored Individuals. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 72(2), 254–267.
  • Martin, J.; Cormican, K.; Sampaio, S.; Wu, Q. (2018). Shared leadership and team performance: An analysis of moderating factors. Procedia Computer Science 138, 671–679.
  • Montgomery, B. (2017). Mapping a Mentoring Roadmap and Developing a Supportive Network for Strategic Career Advancement. SAGE open, April-June, 1–13.
  • Ristikangas, V.; Clutterbuck, D.; Manner, J. (2014). Jokainen tarvitsee mentorin. Kauppakamari 2014.
  • Saarinen, E. (2015). Life-Philosophical Lecturing as a Systems-Intelligent Technology of the Self. Journal of Philosophical Research, 40(9999), 263-280.
  • Vanderbroeck, P. (2010). Lonely leaders. And how organizations can help them. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching, VIII(1), 83-90.
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