The old aphorism, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” is the foundation of the second rule of mentoring. Many a mentor has fallen into the subtle trap of driving the mentoring process, only to reach a point of disappointment and frustration when the protégé’s energy and enthusiasm begins to wane. The drive that was there at the beginning starts to give way to other demands in the protégé’s world. For some, the newness of mentoring wears off, sapping some enthusiasm. For others, day-to-day responsibilities begin to take over, and mentoring becomes a luxury the protégé cannot afford. In any case, mentoring meetings become less frequent and tangible progress on mentoring goals slows.
When the drive fades, many mentors see a vacuum that they are tempted to fill. The temptation is palpable, since the mentor is losing the connection that had been built early in the process. They see the progress slowing and want to step in to get it back. There is also a self-esteem component at work: is my protégé losing interest because I’m not a good mentor? Some mentors step into the gap by driving the meeting schedule. Others begin to take over on the protégés goals, giving more advice and taking a more active role in the steps the protégé is taking. Both of these actions can lead to either a protégé disengaging from a mentor entirely or, worse, a protégé being dragged along by an enthusiastic mentor who has taken the wheel.
Unfortunately, driving the mentoring process generally backfires on the most well intentioned mentor. The fact is that mentoring isn’t for everyone at all times. There are some protégés who are attracted to the idea of mentoring, but really don’t have the time to devote to it. They have other pressing issues that take up more of their time and attention, making mentoring a tertiary priority at best. This protégé may start working with a mentor with the best intentions, only to disappear two or three months in, leaving the mentor wondering what went wrong.
There are some simple things a mentor and protégé can do early in the process to help keep the mentor out of the driver’s seat.
- Agree on a meeting schedule early in the process and turn over responsibility for the schedule to the protégé.
- Let the protégé know the best way to get on your schedule and give her or him permission to book meetings. If you have an administrative assistant, tell him or her that the protégé is allowed priority access to your schedule.
- Protect meetings with your protégé. When you have other priorities that compete with your meeting schedule, set a higher bar for what would cause you to reschedule.
- Promise to respond to requests from your protégé within a short timeframe (e.g., one or two business days). Too many protégés are left hanging by busy mentors.
- Don’t chase the disengaged protégé. If it has been a while since you have met, send a gentle reminder. You can open the door to reconnecting periodically, but don’t start chasing the protégé.
These deceptively simple logistics guidelines will help you transfer ownership of the mentoring process to the protégé, which is where it belongs.
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