Developing Your Brain Trust: Reciprocity and Trust in Leadership Mentoring

In 2011, it seems that everybody is constantly expected to do more with less—and as a result, stress and burnout are on the rise. In such an atmosphere, it is crucial to maintain the relationships that provide us with the energy which will allow us to persevere in demanding times. However, these relationships can be difficult to nurture given the fast pace of work and limited time resources most leaders face.

So how do leaders manage this balancing act of sacrifice and renewal? One way is through participation in mentoring relationships. Leadership mentoring is a highly personal endeavor, and leaders often have very clear values about what it means to be in such a relationship. In an effort to capture some of this wisdom, I tapped my personal network to obtain the valuable insights of five people I admire on what it means for a leader to give and receive mentorship.

What to look for in a mentor…

When seeking out a mentor, focus on identifying those who have pulled off admirable accomplishments in admirable ways—people who have honed their technical and political skills to become recognized for their achievements and their experiences. The most desirable mentors are constantly engaged in developing their knowledge and skills. They have a demonstrable passion for learning. Rather than stay wedded to old models and theories, they keep pace with the world and constantly improve their knowledge through their own networks of experts and thought leaders.

A potential mentor must also demonstrate empathy—a genuine understanding of and concern for the needs of others, including you. Mentors should be able to focus on your situational needs, the culture you are working with, and other aspects of the context. He or she is a person that can be counted on to provide honest and critical feedback, to be able to challenge you, and to offer perspectives you would not otherwise have considered. In other words, you want to find a mentor who will help you identify what is blocking you from reaching your goals, while at the same time hold you accountable for overcoming barriers and developing self-reliance.

What to expect out of the relationship…

Mentorship relationships are reciprocal and mutually beneficial. When a leader engages with a mentor, he or she expects that the mentor will receive value as well as provide it. In other words, you should have something to offer, whether it is during or after the engagement. It is likely that the mentor will expect it. Another form of reciprocity in mentoring relationships is trust. You and your mentor should be able to trust each other with confidential sharing of experiences—the bad ones as well as the good ones. Without trust, neither participant in the relationship ever completely knows where the other stands.

It is important for a mentor to commit to regular interaction within the scope of the relationship. This means that both parties must make a sincere commitment to the engagement at regular, time-protected intervals. For this reason, many leaders have clearly defined goals that they want to achieve through working with a mentor.  Potential mentors are more likely to accept the relationship if they understand that they are not being asked for a long-term commitment. Once a mentoring relationship is agreed upon, the scope of the relationship can be co-constructed to meet both people’s professional as well as personal needs. If a mentor is not enjoying the relationship as much as you are, then it’s a problem.

It’s a complex world. Often, it is simply too much to expect a single individual to hold all your mentoring needs. Develop a network of people you trust for high quality knowledge based on expertise in their fields and on personal experience—a “mentoring network,” or a value chain of expertise which you can leverage depending on the context and the task. As you engage each other, reciprocity grows with your authentic use of the network, while at the same time you have the opportunity to obtain more than one take on any particular issue or opportunity.

I wish to acknowledge my “brain trust” for this blog article: Nancy Lewis (former VP, Learning at IBM and CLO, ITT Corporation); Sue Todd (President, Corporate University Xchange); Mary McNevin (President, McCain Learning Centre); Ann Schulte (Vice President, Global Talent Acquisition, Management & Development at MasterCard Worldwide); J. Keith Dunbar (Director of Global Learning Solutions Group at Defense Intelligence Agency)

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