Discerning Leaders Choose What’s Best for Them — Even if Their Mentors Disagree

It’s happened to all of us — we go to our mentor asking for help, and get advice that just feels wrong. It’s frustrating. We want them to know us and affirm our instincts — and sometimes, we want them to protect us from our instincts! But the most important thing we need to remember is that we know, inside, if their advice is good or not.  It takes courage to listen to ourselves, and veer from the path that our more powerful, more influential, and usually helpful mentor suggests.

Here’s a thoughtful excerpt from Robert Sutton’s Harvard Business Review blog, Five Signs Your Mentor’s Giving You Bad Advice.

“There’s a lesson for those who are struggling to take something that works well in one place and replicate it elsewhere. It just might be that people who are ignoring or rejecting the beliefs and behaviors you are trying to spread are not wrong.  They may be doing what Sheryl did: considering your advice and concluding that, while it might have been good for others, it would be bad in their situation. This kind of constructive defiance might even be helpful to you, if what you’re trying to scale is actually very context-dependent, or is a bad idea you’ve got irrational faith in.  As Huggy and I like to say, to spread excellence, the first order of business is to make sure that you’ve get some actual excellence to spread!

There is another lesson, of course, for the recipient of advice — and it’s the point Sheryl Sandberg was making. Even if you have the best of mentors, that does not relieve you of the task of figuring out your own best course of action. Mentees have to play an active role in judging the advice they get.  With that in mind, and with reference to some applicable research, I’ll offer five signs that maybe you need to think harder about the advice your mentor is giving you:

1.  Are you straying from the path that your mentor has taken?  Piles of research on “social similarity” or “similarity-attraction” effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own and a negative reaction to paths that clash with their past choices.    So if your mentor spent a year working in, say, China as part of his or her career and you are about to turn down a similar opportunity, don’t be surprised if he or she sees it as a mistake.

2. What is in it for them? Will some of your choices benefit your mentor more than others?  The answer might be fairly obvious, but still be something that you (and your mentor, who will have imperfect self-awareness) don’t realize is subtly guiding the advice offered.  For example, if you work closely today with your mentor, and make his or her life easier and more successful, that usually helpful and objective party might have a hard time giving you the best advice about an opportunity that will put you in a different role.  I get annoyed by economists and other behavioral scientists who claim that self-interest is behind every human word and deed – yet there is no denying that it affects every one of us, and more often and more deeply than we realize.

3.  Is your appetite for risk drastically different from your mentors?  If you are more comfortable with risk than your mentor, he or she may caution you against that crazy new startup or bold new project.  I suspect that this was part of the story for Sheryl ; both Google and Facebook were high-risk adventures when she joined.   Mismatches also go the other way. As Huggy Rao observes, if your mentor is a skydiver, races motorcycles, and has a history starting risky projects or doing big risky acquisitions – but the very thought of such things keeps you up at night and makes you physically ill – then you might not want advice from that person on taking a risky job or making a risky decision.

4.  Do you know more than they do?   Just because someone is older and more experienced than you are does not mean that they know more about the particular decision you are making. The more distant they are from the work you do and the business you work in, the more wary you should be.  I suspect, for example, that Sheryl understood Facebook’s potential more than older mentors or those who weren’t so heavily steeped in the industry.

5. Do your peers — and those you lead or mentor — know more about you than your mentor does?   There is a structural problem with many mentor-mentee relationships that I have implied in past writings: A large body of research shows that, in pecking orders of any kind, the people (and in, fact, animals) who have less power attended more closely to and understand those with more power than the other way around (see here and here).  This so called “asymmetry of attention” means that you probably know a lot more about your mentor (who is likely more powerful than you) than your mentor knows about you.   Consider some implications. You may be overestimating how well your mentor knows and understands you as a result (and thus putting too much faith in his or her advice).   Such asymmetry also suggests that your peers, our better yet, the people who you lead and mentor, may give you the best advice.  Indeed, I have argued (going back for some 30 years)  that reverse mentoring is underappreciated and underused by both organizations and individuals.”

Food for thought, and action…

Have you ever accepted bad advice from your mentor? Or resisted it? What happened? I’d love to hear your stories.

One comment

  1. […] Good networking includes active mentoring, sponsorship and support. Many of the networking groups I’ve attended mainly involved practicing our elevator speeches or sharing tips on social marketing. Useful enough, but certainly, not enough for entrepreneurial success. In essence, good networking involves creating relationships outside the networking group, through partnerships (“leaning in“), leading up and mentoring. […]


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