Bad mentors want to turn you into a prodigy; good mentoring isn’t what you think it will be

Thomas Davies previously had a negative view of mentoring, because most mentors he'd come across were simply bad. But a few key conversations, and some time reflection, led him to realise that a good mentor can reset your expectations of what the process can, and should, look like.

Right now, isolation has given us all a lot of time to think. In the silence of our makeshift home offices, it’s easy to find yourself reflecting on the effects we have on each other.

Whether we’re introverts, extroverts or something in between, people need people. We’re a fundamentally social species, and there are a lot of thoughts, questions and challenges that simply aren’t meant to be processed by our own brains alone. That’s not pseudoscience – it’s the reason we developed language.

When you poll juniors in our industry about things they’d like more of in their jobs, mentor programs often rank on top. The nature of agency land means we’ve got a whole lot of young people working in high-pressure, deadline-oriented roles. By design, our day-to-day jobs are dynamic and ever changing.

Separating bad mentors from the good isn’t always easy

As one of those young people myself (I’m 27, for context), it’s not at all uncommon to hit a point where you just think: “This is brand new to me, and I have no idea what to do next.”

Recently, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of taking part in The Trenches, an amazing initiative started by PwC’s Nicky Bryson. For those unfamiliar with it, the program connects young talent from across the industry with mentors on a rotating basis.

In its simplest form, it’s a matchmaking service – person with question, meet person with possible answer. But to leave it at that would be a disservice, because I can genuinely say the pairings I’ve had so far have delivered three of the most impactful conversations of my career.

In their own ways, each of these people have triggered some of the greatest insights I’ve had about myself, the way I work and what I find valuable. Perhaps more importantly, they completely reshaped my view of mentoring, both in terms of my own career and any advice I dish out to others.

In the past, I’ve often had a fairly negative view on mentoring. If you’re anything like me, you probably came into your career brimming with ambition and ego: a perfectly toxic cocktail of “I can do anything” and “I don’t need anyone”.

In this mode, you often find yourself either rejecting the advice of people who could actually help or, worse, gravitating to people who’ve gotten ahead through sheer belligerence because you believe you might be able to copy them.

Spoiler alert – these are not the kind of people you want as a mentor. And after bad experiences, it’s all too easy to slide into the belief that it’s not really worth the effort. Why bother seeking out other people to teach you things when you could spend that same time simply teaching yourself?

Of course, what I now see is that a mentor doesn’t teach you new things.

Instead, a mentor helps you clarify what you already know. This dynamic alone is enough to separate the good mentors from the bad. The bad ones – all too common in my experience – are trying to mould you into them. They view you more as a canvas upon which to validate their own skillset and beliefs. Whether implicitly or explicitly, it’s all: “If someone else does exactly what I do, then that must prove I’m right.”

A good mentor, as counter intuitive as it sounds, probably doesn’t care less about the way that you do things. What they care about is making sure that you and they see all the angles.

Mentoring at its best is not about providing a roadmap, but rather perspective. It’s less about teaching someone how you would solve a problem, and more about helping them understand how they might solve it.

This is why some of the best business leaders make the effort to actively seek out reverse mentoring.

This was a stark realisation to me, because, if I’m being totally honest, I would have to count myself among the bad mentors. Far too often, my approach to people who’ve asked me for advice is to project an itemised list of tasks aimed at turning them into a miniature Tom Davies.

As it turns out, maybe I’m still brimming with ego after all…

Having come to that realisation, I’ve landed on a couple of mental models that might be worth sharing (again with the ego) to help craft better quality conversations. In the spirit of heeding my own advice, let me qualify the below as my perspective that you can use to build upon your own.

For mentees, it’s super simple. Question everything.

Don’t just ask your mentor questions about what they’d do and why, but also ask yourself whether what they’re telling you is actually right (often, it won’t be).

Question how their perspective differs and aligns with your own, and whether the way they might tackle a challenge is complementary to your own tendencies and beliefs.

This, by the way, is the reason why the best mentors will typically be people from outside of your organisation. One of the fundamental laws of physics is that the way we experience reality is relative, so it stands to reason that a person who sits a few desk pods down from you is probably going to struggle to add new angles to your view.

When you’re assessing someone you might want to chat with, ask yourself: “If they were in my shoes, would they act similarly to the way that I act?” If the answer is yes, they’d probably make a good friend and a poor mentor.

For mentors, the critical thing to remember is that you’re not a teacher, you’re an encyclopaedia. You’re not Google Maps, giving someone detailed, step-by-step directions of how to get from A to B. You’re a guidebook, providing inspiration and context from which they can forge their own path.

If the reason you’re looking for a mentee is because you think it’d be great to have a young, hungry version of yourself to delegate projects to, maybe stop. On the other hand, if you’re passionate about sharing your expertise with others because someone once helped you in the same way, thank you. Our industry desperately needs people like you.

If you’re on the fence about engaging in a mentoring program, give it a go (and you should definitely sign up for The Trenches if you get the chance).

Just understand that the primary value is not learning from others. It’s learning from yourself.

Thomas Davies is strategy manager at Mindshare and chairperson of GroupM’s Young Leadership Committee, NCo


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