Reluctant Mentors

I observed something at work this week that made me very sad.  No one died, or was fired unfairly, or received distressing personal news.  It was much more subtle than that:  I saw someone miss (or refuse, actually) an opportunity to be a mentor.

Is anyone reaching out to us for mentoring ... and we're not seeing them?

It might not seem like a big deal, really.  I mean, in our work and personal lives, we miss capitalizing on opportunities all the time, just in the regular course of events.  Certainly, even the most selfless person can’t be aware of — or pursue — every possible opportunity; to wit, we can’t be all things to all men at all times. But when an ideal circumstance — an “easy layup” in basketball parlance — presents itself and we choose dismiss it out of hand, that’s another matter entirely.  It left me wondering, how many golden opportunities to mentor others do we miss every day?

A Towering Figure

The reluctant (or unwilling) mentor — let’s call him, The Professor — is a towering figure in our organization and our industry.  His expertise and insight has been widely respected and sought-out for decades.  When he speaks to conferences or in small-group settings, listeners almost literally hang on his every word, and he has an innate ability to convey the maximum meaning with the fewest words.  He has a keen and creative mind, and can be supremely gracious, engaging, and gentile.

The Professor  is extremely self-disciplined and focused, and expects the same in others.  The flip side of this, though, is that he can parse out the sharing of knowledge on a “need to know” basis, very strictly defined. (Sidenote: We are not in the intelligence business, or an industry in which “need to know” confidentiality limitations are vital to the success and protection of the enterprise).

The Eager (Potential) Mentee

The Professor’s potential mentee is an accomplished professional in his own right — having achieved considerable success and name recognition in his field.  He is 20 years earlier in his career, though, and carries himself with an air of engagement, curiosity, and thirst for drinking in all possible knowledge in his field.  He has sought many times to establish a mentor-mentee working relationship with The Professor (they have peer roles in our small organization).  Time and time again, though, his entreaties have been rebuffed, either actively or passively, by the Professor.

A Missed Opportunity, Again

This past week, The Professor gave a presentation on his latest work in one of his specialty areas.  In doing so, he touched on a “technical” topic that has a tangential relationship to the work of most people in our division.  After listening to the presentation, The Mentee gathered up his courage (or really, his hopeful heart) once again and approached The Professor.  He inquired if The Professor might give an overview of the technical topic to the division at-large, given that it had been many years since most of us had studied the topic in-depth and a “refresher” would of great benefit.

Sadly, the response came back a polite but definitive, “No.”  The Professor — missing the point almost entirely — didn’t feel that others had a specific need to know about the topic at this time.  Deeply disappointed but not surprised, the deflated Mentee went back to his work with a sigh.

What a difference a mentoring relationship can make for both parties -- and the organization, as a whole

Learnings and Reminders

In the (true) story above, “The Mentee” is both an individual person as well as a “composite figure” representing the organization as a whole.  It is  tantalizing to have an expert in your midst who — whether by temperament, philosophy, or other limitations — is unable or unwilling to share their expertise broadly with others who are eager for it.  A missed opportunity, truly.  And one, in this instance, that has been repeated dozens and dozens of times over the years, to the detriment of all concerned.

Perhaps the forward-looking question is this: Are there opportunities for us to serve as mentors for others that we are not currently seeing or pursuing?  What can we do today to capitalize on even one of these opportunities?  What a difference it may make.

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