When Having No Mentor Is Better Than Having a Bad One

Let’s get one thing straight about mentors: They’re nice-to-haves, not have-to-haves. Someone in a senior position paving the way for you is a rare advantage, but counting on some patron to drag you up is just pathetic.

Robert I. Sutton’s recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review site suggests five reasons why even a successful and well-intentioned mentor might be a hindrance to your career rather than a help. These apply to just about any career track, but anyone seeking investment banking jobs in particular does well to be aware of them.

  1. Are you straying from the path that your mentor has taken?  Your mentor knows one thing for certain: What worked for him/her. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the same professional choices will work for you. You’re different people, and you started your careers at different times.
  2. Will some of your choices benefit your mentor more than others?  Again, we’re assuming your mentor’s intentions are above reproach, but let’s face it – we are all human. And if we’re accustomed to having a sharp, young investment banker like yourself watching our backs, we might unconsciously nudge you toward roles where we can continue to rely on you. Maybe that ex-pat assignment is what’s really best for you, but there’s always a justification to be found to keep you close at hand.
  3. Is your appetite for risk drastically different from your mentor’s?  Beware of mentors who like to skydive. They obviously have a huge appetite for risk and, if you’re the kind of person who feels the need to have a mentor in the first place, maybe you don’t. By the same token, if you’re looking for an investment banking job that commits capital to start-ups involving unproven technology, you might not want to spend all your lunch breaks with T-bill traders.
  4. Do you know more than they do?  We live in a time when your dream job might not have been invented yet when your mentor was your age, even if your mentor is only ten years older than you. You can rely on their expertise about people, and introductions to certain persons, but when it comes to the process and technology of investment banking jobs, maybe you are the mentor in this relationship.
  5. Do your peers — and those you lead or mentor — know more about you than your mentor does? Been to the zoo lately? Notice how the beta gorilla takes more time and attention getting to know the alpha gorilla than the other way around.  Behavioral science calls this “asymmetry of attention” and, in our current context, it means that you likely know more about your mentor than your mentor knows about you.   That’s why 360-degree input is so important: You need to get the viewpoints of your peers and, if you have any, your direct-reports to fill in the gaps in your mentor’s understanding of you and your goals.

What this all boils down to is that even though your car has GPS, you’re still the driver. Even the best mentor is no substitute for self-reliance.

If anyone ever tells you, “Just do what I tell you for the next twenty years and you’ll get where you want to go,” then your baloney detector should be ringing like bells at a royal wedding. Don’t let anybody own your career but yourself.

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