where does mentoring pay off the most?

I’ve written before about how much I like informally mentoring people, and it’s generally an instinct that kicks in when I spot someone of a particular profile: young/relatively new to the work world, smart, motivated, and promising but inexperienced. And it seems obvious why — their talents seem worth investing the time to give them some extra guidance and attention, to help them really flourish. And often they don’t yet know that there’s something special about them, and it’s rewarding to help them spot and harness it.

But it occurs to me to wonder if it wouldn’t actually be better to apply that kind of time and attention to a different type of person instead — the struggling rather than the obviously promising.

Do we seek out those with star potential because they’ll benefit the most from our help — or is it possible that it’s actually less about that and more because we like to see ourselves in them, or that it’s so gratifying to watch them blossom and feel we played a role in their success? Maybe we’d actually have a more significant impact if we made that kind of time investment with someone who doesn’t have obvious star potential, someone who doesn’t appear to be a natural candidate for grooming.

After all, the clearly promising ones are more likely to find their way regardless of our help, although perhaps our help gets them there faster or more smoothly. It’s the not-so-obvious candidates where mentoring and extra attention might really make the decisive difference.

I suspect this isn’t a novel thought at all to many people, but it was a semi-epiphany for me.

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Your question has been asked many different times in many different fields. In education, which is more important: special ed or gifted classes? In sales, which do you help more: the top salesperson or the struggling seller? In battle: do you stop to help a wounded soldier, or pick up a gun and follow your commander?

    In some cases, there is no right answer. In others, it depends on the circumstances. Preferably, you’d help both people, but given the choice of one? That depends.

  2. The Engineer*

    I think your premise question is slightly off. I doubt many of us actually “seek” those with star potential, but we do “notice” them. (I think you were perhaps more accurate in your opening sentence where you talk of spotting talent.) Exceptional talent gets noticed because we see the skills that we recognize as needed in order to be successful. I think a better question for a potential mentor is “Am I willing to help someone who doesn’t catch my attention, but asks for my counsel?” Taking up a level might be, “Am I looking for for someone who doesn’t catch my attention, but needs something that I can offer?”

    You state that “the clearly promising ones are more likely to find their way regardless of our help . . .” Perhaps, but I think it is also true that the truly promising know how (have learned how) to network into that help. Thus creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

    Desire to improve is usually more important than raw talent. The innate level of talent may be the starting point, but persistent work towards a goal typically carries the day.

  3. Anonymous*

    I appreciate The Engineer’s comment that persistent work toward a goal usually carries the day.

    As an academic I’d like to put in a word for mid-career professionals in need of mentoring or other mechanisms of furthering their (our) work.

    In academia there are many career mechanisms to support new PhDs toward establishing themselves as scientists. But what if you have some life events that kick you out of the funding world, out of the conference-going world, etc.? At mid-career there are few supports out there for a person.

    Add sexism and mix.

  4. Wally Bock*

    Engineer has a powerful insight there. We do not seek out prot�g�s. We notice them. And they are often the ones that not only are more visible, but more likely ask questions. That’s where my mentoring relationships have all started. I did not wake up and decide, “Today I’m going to find someone to mentor.” But in the course of work or something else, someone asked a question. And, in some cases, I relationship grew from the answer.

  5. Sandy*

    Thank you for your comments on this. If you’ve ever heard of the “ten cow wife” story, this could be a good example. (A man in Africa paid a 10 cow dowry for a dowdy woman. Her appearance was dull and she slouched as she walked. When everyone questioned why he would give such a high price for a dud of a woman, he would persist on offering 10 cows for her. In time, she began to carry herself more proudly and respond with more self-confidence. Her husband had offered a record 10 cows for her hand in marriage!! The village also began to treat her differently, too. She was a 10 cow wife!)

    That’s what your blog reminds me of.

  6. BossLady*

    @ Engineer,

    I think you make some good points about the desire to improve and such. However, I think the 10 cow wife story also makes a good point. Its much more difficult to have a desire to improve and grow when that isn’t rewarded at least nominally (that could be by a mentor or family or whatever.) So I think AAM’s post is a salient one.

    Also, I’m not so sure about the distinct difference between seeking and noticing mentees. While its true it often seems to happen by chance, I think for most managers (for myself I know this is true) its literally their job to constantly be eyeing the talent pool, selecting promising candidates and helping them develop into better professionals. Sometimes thats the less involved manager/employee relationship, but often when your personalities are in sync that grows into something more. Perhaps at some point it becomes ingrained and then it doesnt seem like seeking anymore?

  7. The Engineer*

    I agree with the concept found in the “10 cow wife” story. A supportive environment gives an individual the opportunity to be their best. My original comment is from the point of view that providing mentoring is not always (nor does it need be) consistent with supervisory lines.

    Indeed, every manager should be seeking to bring out the best in their staff and keep a watchful eye for the next addition. A good manager should focus on developing staff such that their individual careers can advance. Even when that means you will need to replace them when they do advance.

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