“It sounds like that was your first mistake: your mentor should never be your boss,” says psychologist Joan Harvey as I began to explain my tale of mentorship gone wrong. “You should be able to bounce off issues with a work mentor – sometimes these might have something to do with your boss. You can’t be open and honest [if your boss is your mentor] because where does the superior/subordinate relationship end and the mentor and mentee relationship begin?” she adds.
Before I entered the world of work, I had a Hollywood-movie sense of what a mentor was and the importance they should have in your life. On screen these relationships mirrored attributes of familial relationships and friendships, so subconsciously that was the expectation I had. In hindsight those were pretty big boots to fill, especially as I never formerly asked her to be my mentor –they don’t in the movies, so it never even crossed my mind.
“This isn’t totally unusual,” says Dr Ché Rosebert, director for external relations for the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK. “If you don’t work at a company where a mentorship scheme is in place or you meet someone outside of the world of work who you admire and want to learn from, you may fall into a mentor/mentee relationship without ever officially discussing the expectations of both parties. This lack of a formal agreement is often why a mentorship can fail.”
My mentor and I had no formal agreement and never talked about the mentorship aspect of our relationship. “For all you know she may never have thought of herself as a mentor, but rather a supportive boss with a developmental management style,” says Harvey.
She has a point. When we first met, I was in awe of my mentor’s talent, her confidence, her tenacity, and I wanted to glean as much as I could from her in the hope that I could achieve what she had and more. She had a caring, nurturing, motherly nature that, in the beginning, made me feel comfortable asking her for career advice. Looking back, perhaps she was happy to give it because I was so much more junior. However, as the years rolled on and I rose up the ranks within our small company, things began to change. When she got pregnant for the first time and management had to decide whether I would cover her role, the powwows where I could check in with her for advice – what does she think about this profile-building project I had in mind? Would it be a good career move to do further training in order to gain an industry-recognised qualification? – became few and far between. I suppose she had begun to see me as a possible threat and competition, which bred resentment on my side because it was never my intention to pump her for information then take her job.
“If situations between a mentor and mentee change, then the dynamics of the relationship can often change too – especially when your boss is your mentor,” explains Rosebert. Our dynamic changed when I was chosen to cover her role, and she was even more distant on her return. I went back to working underneath her and she drew a very obvious line in the sand. We were well and truly in competitive mode – I tried to fall back, hoping this one-upmanship would cool off once she felt more secure in her position post mat leave, but when our roles were made redundant and we were both asked to interview for a new one, it was clear there was no going back.
“Mentorships aren’t necessarily open-ended. In fact, it’s important to be specific with how long you both want to commit to your mentor/mentee relationship, and regular reviews should be scheduled in. However, in this case gender politics probably plays a role too,” says Rosebert. “Due to the lack of women at the highest level of management, females are often pitted against one another and competition ensues. And while competition can be healthy, it can be pretty divisive and is generally handled badly,” she adds.
I didn’t get the new role. I didn’t think I would – but I did think that for my own development it would be a good experience to interview anyway. After I left we barely spoke and for a long time I felt crushed by what I saw as a betrayal. I was also frustrated with myself for having expectations of her and giving so much of my support and time to someone in a bid to get them to see I wasn’t the enemy, only to be rejected over and over again. I couldn’t understand why I had tried so hard; she was just a mentor, after all.
“If you have a strong reaction to someone letting you down it won’t just be about that relationship, echoes of past experiences and emotions will subconsciously bleed into the present,” says Rosebert. “This is because the way we relate to people is formed very early on in our lives, which means we repeat the familiar relationship patterns of our childhood with the people we encounter. So, it could be that you’re looking for something you felt you were denied in childhood or you’re looking to relive a relationship you had – one that may not necessarily be good for you, but is comforting because it’s familiar,” she explains.
It wasn’t until a year later that I got an email from my former mentor explaining her state of mind during our rough patch, and in a roundabout way acknowledging and apologising for her part in the destruction of our relationship. This allowed me to see things from her perspective, be more understanding, and recognise that my expectations had likely been too much for her – something I couldn’t see when we initially parted ways.
Rosebert believes I was “going through a complicated grief reaction and during those times it’s important to be compassionate with yourself”. She continues, “But you would have been wise to have not let the disappointment consume you. Focusing on the pain and feeling let down can get in the way of seeing there are people in your life who can give you what you need. In doing so it’s easier to bounce back from disappointment.”
Thankfully, my former mentor reaching out allowed me to fully move on, and rather than put me off the idea of mentorship, it actually made me consider trying the role on for size. I now have a less rose-tinted view of it, but I still believe female mentoring is necessary and a force for good. And thanks to some expert advice, I’m armed with the tools to mentor successfully.
Create a contract with your mentee. This way both parties can express what they hope to achieve from the experience and what their expectations are of one another. If expectations don’t align, you will know that this is not right for you both. Establish clear boundaries and decide how long you will carry out the role of mentor. Once you understand what your mentee’s expectations are, a timeline should be easier to plan. Schedule regular review sessions to check whether the arrangement is still working for all involved.
While it can be incredibly flattering to be asked to mentor someone, especially if they have personally approached you, it’s important to understand that while someone admires you in one way, they may not want to be you. Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all situation, so it’s imperative that you are prepared to listen and get to know your mentee. By discovering their strengths and skills, you’ll be able to help them develop their own unique talents and strengths rather than applying your personal playbook to their lives.
Create a safe space for your mentee. Build a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. Most importantly, your mentee should feel you view them as an equal. Value their time, and ensure you are totally present during your interactions. Finally, when feedback is required, be honest but always keep it constructive.
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