Podcast: How to Be a Great Mentor
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Careers Sep 10, 2018

Pod­cast: How to Be a Great Mentor

Plus, some valu­able career advice that applies to just about everyone.

A mentor puts capes on proteges.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Diane Brink

Carter Cast

Listening: Career Development

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Get­ting the right words of wis­dom at the right time can make all the dif­fer­ence to your career. But how do you make that hap­pen — both for your­self and for oth­ers around you?

In this episode of the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast, we hear from Diane Brink, a senior fel­low and adjunct pro­fes­sor with­in the Kel­logg School’s Mar­kets & Cus­tomers Ini­tia­tive who served as CMO for IBM’s glob­al tech­nol­o­gy ser­vices about her own jour­ney from pro­tégé to men­tor. Then Carter Cast, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at Kel­logg, describes how you can solic­it advice that can help accel­er­ate your career even in the absence of a mentor.

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Pod­cast Transcript

Jes­si­ca LOVE: Ear­ly in her career, Diane Brink was labeled a high-poten­tial future exec­u­tive. Her employ­er put her on a senior lead­er­ship devel­op­ment track. She was hun­gry to become an exec­u­tive. And there was a point when it looked like it was final­ly going to happen. 

Diane BRINK: I had, in my view, based upon all of the input that I had got­ten from my man­age­ment, done every­thing that I could have pos­si­bly done. My next job was going to be that exec­u­tive job. Checked off every sin­gle box in the devel­op­ment plan. My man­ag­er came to me and said, We’ve got this great oppor­tu­ni­ty. We want you to be the exec­u­tive assis­tant to the CFO of North Amer­i­ca.” And I want­ed to scream, but I didn’t.

LOVE: Exec­u­tive … assistant. 

No, Brink didn’t scream. Instead, she did some­thing much bet­ter. She got some career advice. 

BRINK: So, I called this man, who I had worked for, and he lis­tened to me. He lis­tened to my frus­tra­tion. He said to me, So Diane, how long do you think you’re going to be work­ing for?” I said, Well, I don’t know. Maybe 25, 35 years.” He said, These EA jobs are typ­i­cal­ly 12 to 18 months. So, do you think that there might be some­thing that you’d learn in those 12 to 18 months that might help you down the road?” I lit­er­al­ly put my head in my lap because what he was say­ing was so obvi­ous. It was right in front of me, and I didn’t see it. 

LOVE: Brink took the exec­u­tive assis­tant job. And as her men­tor pre­dict­ed, what she learned and who she met end­ed up being incred­i­bly valu­able. From that posi­tion, she even­tu­al­ly rose to become IBM’s chief mar­ket­ing offi­cer for glob­al tech­nol­o­gy ser­vices. She’s now a senior fel­low and adjunct pro­fes­sor with­in the Kel­logg School’s Mar­kets & Cus­tomers Initiative. 

Get­ting the right words of wis­dom at the right time can make all the dif­fer­ence to your career. But how do you make that happen? 

Wel­come to the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast. I’m your host, Jes­si­ca Love. Today, our pro­duc­er Fred Schmalz talks to Kel­logg fac­ul­ty mem­bers Diane Brink and Carter Cast about how to find and devel­op trust­ed sources of career advice. That can mean estab­lish­ing a for­mal rela­tion­ship with a men­tor. Or it can mean seek­ing out less for­mal feed­back from col­leagues and high­er-ups about what will help you advance in your com­pa­ny. Stay with us. 

[music inter­lude]

Fred SCHMALZ: Diane Brink has gained so much from being men­tored that she now rou­tine­ly men­tors oth­ers. From her expe­ri­ence on both sides of that men­tor – pro­tégé rela­tion­ship, she’s devel­oped a rock-sol­id sense of what a healthy, pro­duc­tive men­tor­ing arrange­ment should look like. 

Per­haps the most impor­tant thing men­tors can do, she says, is to offer non­judg­men­tal support. 

BRINK: The whole idea behind the men­tor­ing rela­tion­ship is that it’s a penal­ty-free envi­ron­ment. But unless you cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that is open and trust­ing, you might not nec­es­sar­i­ly get real­ly what’s on a person’s mind or what’s both­er­ing them or some­thing they real­ly want to ask you but they don’t feel com­fort­able ask­ing because you hap­pen to be some­what more senior than they are. 

SCHMALZ: A good men­tor is also some­one who pri­or­i­tizes being a good mentor.

There are plen­ty of peo­ple who would be glad to act as a sound­ing board … in the­o­ry. But when it comes to mak­ing time on their cal­en­dar, things just nev­er seem to happen.

Or maybe they show up phys­i­cal­ly, but aren’t real­ly present. 

BRINK: Some men­tors fail because they haven’t real­ly embraced the role. They’re there just to lis­ten but not to engage. That’s not very help­ful. It’s a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for the men­tor, and it’s also a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for the protégé. 

SCHMALZ: Brink has advice for pro­tégés too. 

Let’s say you’ve found a men­tor who tru­ly makes time for you and who main­tains a sup­port­ive, non­judg­men­tal atti­tude. What should you expect out of the relationship? 

Accord­ing to Brink, the answer may not be as trans­ac­tion­al as you think. 

BRINK: For exam­ple, there was a time I was paired with some­one, a young woman exec, who was in the mar­ket­ing func­tion. A lot of times in func­tion, you do a lot of men­tor­ing to make sure that you’re suc­ces­sion-plan­ning and your tal­ent devel­op­ment is mov­ing into new jobs and oppor­tu­ni­ties. When we met, she sat down, and not even two min­utes into the con­ver­sa­tion was a con­ver­sa­tion about the next job that she was going to get and how I was going to help her get there. 

I had to stop the con­ver­sa­tion and say, Wait, men­tor­ing is not about find­ing you your next job.” 

That’s not your role. Your role is to help that indi­vid­ual real­ize their poten­tial, offer them per­spec­tive for assign­ments that they might have con­sid­ered, talk about where their strengths are and maybe work a lit­tle bit more on their weak­ness­es. It’s not about find­ing this per­son their next job. 

SCHMALZ: As with so much in life, what you get out of men­tor­ship mir­rors exact­ly what you put into it. Brink remem­bers one pro­tégé who asked to meet month­ly. Each time, one week before their meet­ing, he emailed her an agen­da. Not only did that impress the heck out of her, it also demon­strat­ed that he was com­mit­ted to mak­ing the rela­tion­ship as pro­duc­tive as possible. 

Pro­tégés also have to be ready to dis­cuss what they want out of their own careers. A men­tor can do many things, but they can’t tell you how to live your life. 

BRINK: The first thing I start with is a dis­cus­sion around, do they know what they want? Do they know what’s impor­tant to them? 

I talk about the fact that they real­ly dri­ve their career. That they’re going to have a lot of peo­ple pro­vid­ing their point of view on what you should be doing with your career, and it’s not their deci­sion. It’s your decision. 

One of the things that I will do through­out my men­tor­ing rela­tion­ships is to encour­age the indi­vid­ual to think about where they see them­selves four or five jobs from now. 

I think it forces the per­son to think more broad­ly about their devel­op­ment plan and the types of chal­lenges and poten­tial assign­ments that they should con­sid­er so that they can get there. 

SCHMALZ: If both men­tor and pro­tégé work at the rela­tion­ship, it can tru­ly change the tra­jec­to­ry of the protégé’s career. 

But Brink is also quick to point out that the ben­e­fits of men­tor­ing go both ways. And the rewards for men­tors go beyond just feel­ing good about help­ing some­one else. For instance, men­tor­ing can be a great way to learn about new devel­op­ments — in your orga­ni­za­tion and in your industry. 

BRINK: You get insight in terms of how the pow­er struc­ture is per­ceived and the polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. You get a sense of how the cul­ture is work­ing in the orga­ni­za­tion. If you’re in a senior posi­tion, you don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly get to see front and cen­ter all of those dif­fer­ent dimen­sions of what’s hap­pen­ing at what­ev­er lev­el, whether you’re men­tor­ing a pro­fes­sion­al, whether you’re men­tor­ing a new man­ag­er, or whether you’re men­tor­ing anoth­er executive. 

I think the oth­er insight is how well is the com­pa­ny com­mu­ni­cat­ing the strat­e­gy to the employ­ees. I think it’s pret­ty clear from my seat, but when you’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, a busi­ness con­ver­sa­tion, and you begin to appre­ci­ate the fact that, wow, that indi­vid­ual missed this aspect of the strat­e­gy — that’s an impor­tant learn­ing because it helps me to be bet­ter at what we need to do to improve to make sure that we’ve got the engage­ment in place. 

SCHMALZ: In addi­tion to hav­ing eyes and ears on the ground in a dif­fer­ent lev­el of the com­pa­ny, men­tors can ben­e­fit from pro­tégés in more prac­ti­cal ways. 

BRINK: I was recent­ly paired with what I would char­ac­ter­ize as a dig­i­tal native, who’s just incred­i­ble on the social and dig­i­tal aspects of mar­ket­ing and the tech­niques and the tools and just real­ly lead­ing edge. She was work­ing with start­up com­pa­nies out in Sil­i­con Val­ley. She was deal­ing with a high-growth, unstruc­tured envi­ron­ment. I was paired with her to help her not go crazy, to kind of say, There’s a way that you can work through this where you’ll be suc­cess­ful and you’ll thrive in this kind of envi­ron­ment, but let’s talk through how you get there from point A to point B. Nev­er a straight line, but point A to point B.” 

What she brought to me was an abil­i­ty to stay cur­rent, more cur­rent in the dig­i­tal uni­verse, because there was no way in my role that I could con­tin­ue to stay apprised of all of the new tools and tech­niques and the appli­ca­tions and this and that. Just by talk­ing with her, it allowed me to stay cur­rent in an area that was inter­est­ing to me and essen­tial to my role. 

SCHMALZ: Of course, the sat­is­fac­tion of help­ing a young col­league learn and grow is pret­ty awe­some all on its own. 

BRINK: The best men­tor is the one that real­ly works to under­stand who you are and is not there to judge you, but is there to just help you real­ize your full potential. 

It’s about giv­ing back. It’s not just about tak­ing. The more that you can under­stand that and incor­po­rate that into who you are, I think the hap­pi­er and rich­er your life is going to be. 

[music inter­lude]

SCHMALZ: It’s hard to beat per­son­al­ized career advice from a long-stand­ing, trust­ed men­tor. But men­tors can be hard to come by in some com­pa­nies or pro­fes­sions. If that’s the posi­tion you’re in, here’s some valu­able career advice that should apply to just about everyone. 

Carter Cast is clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at Kel­logg. He’s also the for­mer CEO of Wal​mart​.com and the author of The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Bril­liant Careers are Made — and Unmade, a new book that asks why some tal­ent­ed peo­ple flour­ish while oth­ers see their careers stall. 

He says that peo­ple who excel share three behav­ioral traits. 

Carter CAST: One, they take the ini­tia­tive. They dive right in. They take account­abil­i­ty for joint out­comes. So if they’re part of a team and there’s a job to be done and things are falling through the cracks because peo­ple say, well, that isn’t my area of account­abil­i­ty, and some­one else says, well, that’s not my area of account­abil­i­ty — they dive in and do it. 

Sec­ond­ly, they’re good at build­ing rela­tion­ships. They lis­ten well. They’re open-mind­ed. You know, Saint Fran­cis of Assisi — They seek to under­stand before being under­stood.” And as a result, they engen­der trust with oth­er cowork­ers, and so they’re able to enlist them to their cause because they’re a good teammate. 

And third, they dri­ve for results. If they say they’re going to get it done Fri­day, they stay til mid­night if they have to to get it out the door on Friday. 

Men­tor­ing is not about find­ing you your next job.”

— Diane Brink

SCHMALZ: Got that? Take ini­tia­tive, build rela­tion­ships, and dri­ve for results, and you are on your way to success. 

But what does suc­cess look like in prac­tice? Specif­i­cal­ly, what should it look like in your job? And no mat­ter how much ini­tia­tive you take, or how strong your dri­ve for results, do you have the under­ly­ing skills — tech­ni­cal or inter­per­son­al — to actu­al­ly pull it off? 

The best way to find out, says Cast, is to actu­al­ly … ask. 

CAST: It’s incum­bent on us to ask our boss, What are the key com­pe­ten­cies in this posi­tion that real­ly are impor­tant that I need to develop?” 

SCHMALZ: And if your boss doesn’t seem open to this type of conversation…. 

CAST: I’ve always gone to peers or peo­ple that were a lev­el above me who’ve been there before. Because they can real­ly help you devel­op that roadmap of suc­cess. And gen­er­al­ly, they’re flat­tered when a younger under­ling says, I real­ly admire your career, your career tra­jec­to­ry. Can I buy you lunch and can you talk to me about what you’ve learned and what’s impor­tant for me to build from a skillset stand­point?” I’ve nev­er had any­body say no when I’ve done that. 

Peo­ple will talk all day about that stuff; they love talk­ing about themselves. 

SCHMALZ: Once you have your answer, or bet­ter yet, many answers, it’s time to get methodical. 

Cast rec­om­mends com­pil­ing a list — an actu­al, writ­ten list of the skills that you need to have to do your job well — and then grad­ing your­self on each and every one. 

CAST: I was in brand mar­ket­ing and I had a list of about, I think it was 14 activ­i­ties or skills that I need­ed to be able to do. For exam­ple, I need­ed to be able to do regres­sion analy­sis. I need­ed to be able to do a break-even analy­sis. Then there was a whole cat­e­go­ry of strate­gic mar­ket­ing, seg­ment­ing mar­kets, fig­ur­ing out how to posi­tion prod­ucts com­pet­i­tive­ly by look­ing at the strengths and weak­ness­es of the com­pe­ti­tion…. You get the point. 

So there were 14 of them. And then I put, here’s where I am now — a C here, a D here, a B+ here. And then I looked at the areas where I had big gaps, and I just slow­ly but sure­ly went about try­ing to nar­row that gap between what I knew and what I need­ed to know. 

SCHMALZ: If you need help grad­ing your­self on some of these skills, par­tic­u­lar­ly soft­er skills that are hard­er to self-eval­u­ate, why not turn to oth­ers? Ask them direct­ly: Do I have the atti­tude or work­ing style to tru­ly suc­ceed at this company? 

When Cast was a senior prod­uct mar­keter at Frito­Lay, he had a con­ver­sa­tion with his boss that dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed his tra­jec­to­ry. Cast had thought he was on the fast track at the com­pa­ny. But in real­i­ty, he learned, he’d got­ten a rep­u­ta­tion as unco­op­er­a­tive. Unman­age­able. In oth­er words, unpro­motable. He also real­ized that the only way to change his rep­u­ta­tion was to take that feed­back — those grades — and put them to use. 

CAST: It was up to me to say, OK, I tend to have a prob­lem when the heavy hand of author­i­ty push­es on me. How am I going to get bet­ter at deal­ing with author­i­ty figures? 

SCHMALZ: If that sounds like a painful process, it was for Cast. No one likes to find out that they need a major course cor­rec­tion. But as Cast points out, pain is often the impe­tus for change. And being able to change … well, that can make a huge dif­fer­ence — both in the way you approach learn­ing and in people’s per­cep­tions about your will­ing­ness to take criticism. 

CAST: Learn­ing how to be learn­ing-agile is the most impor­tant thing you can do for your career. 

So what does that mean? It means being open-mind­ed and lis­ten­ing and not talk­ing all the time. Inno­va­tors have a six-to-one ratio of ques­tions asked to state­ments made. 

And they’re crit­i­cal of their own per­for­mance and reflec­tive about it. How could I have done that bet­ter? What could I have done dif­fer­ent­ly? And they ask peo­ple for feedback. 

So, hav­ing this humil­i­ty about knowl­edge and nev­er think­ing that you’re on top of your game, always feel­ing a lit­tle bit para­noid that there’s a lot you don’t know and that you’re in a state of beta with your­self and your career. I’m 54, and I’m always in this state of test­ing and try­ing new things because I don’t know very much. 

[music inter­lude]

LOVE: This pro­gram was pro­duced by Jes­si­ca Love, Fred Schmalz, Emi­ly Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was writ­ten by Anne Ford. 

Spe­cial thanks to our guests, Diane Brink and Carter Cast. 

As a reminder, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or our web­site, where you can read more about how to find the best sources of career advice. Vis­it us at insight​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er episode of the Kel­logg Insight podcast.

Featured Faculty

Diane Brink

Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor within the Kellogg Markets & Customers Initiative

Carter Cast

Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Anne Ford is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

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