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Stop trying to find a mentor

Finding a mentor won’t save you, as a new manager. But, something else might.

Find a mentor

The key to becoming a better leader is to go find a mentor who’ll help you build your career and guide you…” How many Linkedin articles do you think espouse something like that?

Too many for my liking. Because, frankly, it’s not true. “Go find the person who’s been in that leadership position for 10+ years and get them to be your mentor” is ubiquitous advice – yet it falls flat when battle-tested in the real world. Why?

I spoke with Bryce Roberts, founder of Indie.vc, on our Heartbeat podcast on leadership earlier this year, and he revealed his own answer to this question:

“Early in my career, I really wanted somebody to save me. I really wanted a great mentor. I wanted somebody to just tell me how to do things and show me the road, but that person never materialized. I’ve had great friends and co-workers and I’ve had great moments where I’ve had insights with individuals but I wouldn’t say there was any one time or someone that took me under their wings, showed me what leadership looked like on that kind of consistent and ongoing basis.

And so, I probably spun a lot of cycles, a lot of energy trying to find that person until I realized maybe I just needed to be a composite of the different pieces that I picked up along the way.”

(In addition to Bryce sharing his wisdom on our podcast, we’re lucky to benefit from his wisdom more frequently, as he’s our only investor.)

Bryce is not alone in his experience. For the hundreds of managers and executives I’ve spoken with and worked with over the past almost ten years, none of them have attributed their ability to lead well to a single mentor. Those magical, mythical mentors for us as leaders don’t exist. Surely, there are people with terrific experience and expertise who’ve shared helpful pointers (I’ve been lucky to know a few folks like this, myself.) They offer wonderful insight from time to time. But are they you?

Leadership is not a transferrable good. It’s not a coat that someone wears and then you try it on for size. True leadership is thought and behavior that originates from the person, the leader, themselves. It’s the things you say and do given your context, your values, and your constraints – and no one else’s. Others can give you all the advice in the world about how to be a good leader, and it still might not apply given what team dynamics, personal disposition, overall goals you’re trying to accomplish, cultural factors, and more.

When you posit your entire salvation as a new leader into finding that mentor, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re overlooking the fact that the whole point of being a leader is to carve a path and create an environment for others to do their best work – yet you can’t carve that path or create that environment organically if you’re constantly trying to match that to another path or environment that someone else has created.

As Bryce told me:

“What you might lose is actually your individual unique contribution as a leader [when you try to] mirror what other leaders you respect or read about or even your mentors do, like giving yourself time to develop your own leadership style and figuring out how to reflect yourself and your values. Your leadership is more than just writing down a checklist. I think everybody loves a checklist. But I think they lose out on what you kind of uniquely can contribute by adhering unbendingly to a checklist.”

If you don’t have a checklist, what do you do? How do you know what path to carve, what environment to create?

The answer doesn’t lie in your mentor. The answer also won’t be found in your executive coach (sorry) or any book you’ll read.

Rather, the people who’ll know how you can get better as a leader are your team. Your direct reports, your peers, your boss. The people who you work alongside and work for every single day. The ones who bear the brunt of what you say and receive the consequences of your decisions. They have the answers, not your mentors.

We often think of leadership as a single-player sport – but it’s not. You can’t get better in isolation. You must interact with your team. You have to get feedback. You have to know how your thinking and your actions are affecting and reverberating to others. You have to go to the source.

So instead of trying to find a mentor, go to that source. Ask each of your team members, during your next one-on-one meeting):

  • What’s the biggest gap between intention and action?
  • Where am I letting you down right now?
  • What do you see as my greatest potential?
  • When’s the last time I was helpful to you?

Maybe you don’t want to know the answers. Maybe you’re unsure you’ll get the full truth (you might not.) But ask enough people, ask enough times with sincerity, and you’ll shine a light on and learn more about your deficiencies and proficiencies than ever before.

A mentor won’t save you. But your willingness to talk to your team – and reflect on yourself – just might.

Asking and talking to your team members during 1:1s is the best way to grow as a leader. Be sure to check out Know Your Team to help you run them effectively. You’ll get hundreds of one on one meeting question suggestions, agenda templates, and more, to help you execute on all the suggestions. Make things a bit easier for you as a manager, and try our One-on-Ones Tool in Know Your Team today.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.