The Horrible Mistake Just About Everyone in HR Makes in Choosing a Mentor…

by Alan Collins

I’ve never, ever met a successful HR leader who hasn’t had at least TWO influential mentors in their lives.

HR professionals that have mentors have an edge over those that don’t.

They perform better on the job.

They get promoted more quickly.

They earn higher salaries.

And they report more job and career satisfaction.

However, the #1 biggest mistake I see most HR folks make when selecting a mentor is that…

They try to make the
mentoring relationship entirely

Let me explain…

Personally, in my entire 25 year HR career, I’ve never asked anyone to be my mentor.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful to have had countless mentors.

And I wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance of moving my career forward without their valuable career advice, counsel and friendship.

But asking someone to mentor me always felt awkward and uncomfortable.

So early in my career, the late Jim McConnaughay, a former HR VP at Quaker Oats, gave me some advice about mentors that I’ve never forgotten.  I consider this a gift from him and part of his HR legacy…that I’m now passing on to you.

Here it is:

“Get to know the decisions makers in the company, BEFORE you need their help. Set up time to talk to them about the business, about your interests, and about their needs.”

“But, don’t call this relationship anything.”

“Don’t label it.”

“It’s not mentoring.
It’s not networking.
It’s not a meet up.
It’s not kissing up.”

“It’s just two people talking about the business and getting to know each other.”

“Don’t make it overly structured or formal.”

Instead, simply ASK them: “Would you mind if I stopped by from time to time to get your advice about the business, projects you’re working on and my career.”

That’s it.

It’s just that simple.

I’ve used this “ask” suggested by Jim word for word.

And, I’ve rarely been told “no.” And I never abused the access these “mentors” gave me.

So, the question shouldn’t be whether you should have a mentor.  The only question should be HOW MANY of them should you have. And my answer is: as many as you can handle!

Mentors are simply people who’ve been in your shoes before and can offer advice, support and the savvy gained from experience. So acquiring them should be one of your highest career development priorities.

Mentors can be found in any walk of life. You might have a peer or buddy who is a brilliant leader.  You might have an awesome boss who is great at building teams.  Your dad might have a friend who is a superstar at networking.  A customer or vendor could have a wealth of industry knowledge.

I recently read where the GE CEO got mentored by a computer geek who was an expert on social media who was 25 years old — half of his age. So, don’t get hung up on age, gender or labels.

Your best bet for a mentor is a regular, reachable person you know who buys into your potential and is willing to spend time with you, sharing knowledge, encouraging you, helping you make connections and providing inspiration.

Here are a few other tips about making mentoring relationships work:

1.  Get brutally clear on your career direction.

Before you can be mentored, you must know what HR success for you looks like, so you can recognize it when you get there.

For example: Do you want to ultimately head up the HR function for your company? Your division? Or your department? Do you see yourself on an HR generalist or on a specialist career path?

Do you ultimately want to run your own HR consultancy or be in business for yourself providing HR services?

What personal sacrifices (relocation, family time, additional education, extra hours on evenings and weekends) are you willing to make for your career?

Be specific. Nail this down.

Realize that few busy people want to waste time or put in the effort to help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up.  That’s your job.  Most don’t mind sharing with you advice on how to get there, but determining where you want to go is YOUR responsibility.

2. YOU drive the mentoring relationship, not your mentor. 

Come prepared when working with a mentor. Mentors are busy people who have careers and obligations of their own.

Also, they CANNOT help you in every area of your life, so don’t ask them to.

Every time you meet with your mentor, you should have a written agenda so that you can focus your discussion in those areas.

Also be prepared to give your mentor an update on how you’ve executed against suggestions they offered previously.

3.  Take good care of your mentor relationship.

Set up regular dates for coffee or meet ups with your mentor.

Keep him or her apprised of your progress, challenges, and questions.

Use them as sounding boards. Share your frustrations (constructively) and ask for advice on how to deal with them.

But be sure every discussion you have isn’t about some huge issue or major crisis.  That gets exhausting after awhile.

Your mentor is there to help nurture you in your job and career, not to help bail you out every time you have to put out a fire.

4.  Make it a two-way street by helping your mentor succeed.

Many productive mentoring relationships have benefits for both people. This is where some mentees mess up.

Instead of looking for what you can get, think about WHAT YOU CAN GIVE.

Anything that you can do to proactively put their needs before your own makes for an excellent and long-term mentor-mentee relationship.

5.  Leverage your organization’s formal mentoring programs.

Lots of companies have a formal mentoring program where executives and managers are assigned to high potential employees.

Sometimes these work.

Sometimes they don’t.

In any event, if you have an opportunity to participate, seize it.

6.  When mentors drop off, think of them as “graduating” not as a loss.

As time passes, some of your advisors and mentors may fall off your radar or become less engaged. It’s perfectly normal. Don’t take it personally.

People’s business priorities and career interests change.

So, when a mentor drops out of your life, just cherish the time you spent learning from each other as a great mutual education period. And, make sure you learned something from the experience that added value to your career.

You should get back in the game and reach out to someone new as a replacement. And, keep in mind that just because someone falls away for a while doesn’t means he or she might not come back to play a major role in your HR career at some point in the future.

And, here is one final suggestion…

When selecting mentors, avoid those who
belittle your HR ambitions.  The poor ones do that.
The great ones make you feel that, you too, can become great!


Now it’s your turn…

What’s been your experience with mentors and mentoring in HR?  Please share them below by CLICKING HERE.


SPECIAL NOTE:  For those that have inquired, I do currently have a full slate of both formal and “informal” mentees (and 4 mentors myself)…and this is all I can handle at the moment.  So, unfortunately, I’m unable to accept additional requests for mentoring, at this time.

However, if you’d like a “portable HR mentor” — one that you can carry around and refer to that can provide advice on moving your career in HR forward faster, check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Secrets For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.  Your can get more details HERE. 

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including UNWRITTEN HR RULES.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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9 Responses to “The Horrible Mistake Just About Everyone in HR Makes in Choosing a Mentor…”

  1. Mirriam Ogunja Says:

    Alan research shows that people who follow their ultimate career path,what they studied for in school just like you said report more job and career satisfaction,they are passionate,interested and secure.Couple with great mentors and your on top of the ladder.Offcourse we have those determined to shut you down,obstacles,overcome them with the help of your mentors.I like the part where you say avoid those who belittle your ambitions;I wil also add avoid those who make you feel like they are doing you a favour,it should be culminating and healthy satisfying relationship.Its said today your on top tomorrow down and the one at the bottom tomorrow will be on top.

  2. Laura Says:

    Thank you for very good guidance and thoughtful comments. I would like to find mentors and learn to be a better mentor to others. I truly enjoy working with people and am thrilled when they reach their goals.

  3. Diana Says:

    Thank you Alan. Think you play the role of a constant mentor to HR professionals through the deep insights your materials share. When reading them it is as if communicating to you. Would prefer to have a mentor and be a mentor for others. It is a give and take and/or a win – win experience which shares positive empowering energy. All the best to you unsparing efforts.

  4. Aqua Buddle Says:

    Thanks Alan your insight its always right on time.

  5. william Birech Says:

    You have hit it proper indeed. Great piece of information always and God bless you

  6. Bonnie Nguyen Says:

    Spot on Alan. You have been a great coach and mentor to me these past few years. As a mentor to many, they come and they go, some keep in touch and others sometimes only when they need you for something. Mentoring has to be the most rewarding activity in my life!

  7. David Hines Says:

    This is one of Alan’s best Columns heed his advice and send this valuable article to as many people who you think will find it useful

  8. wayne Says:

    Spot on Alan
    For those in HR I have a blog – Mentoring: 26 reasons why you need it
    You can find it: Google wayne faulkners page then scroll down to the blog with that title
    best – wayne

  9. Says:

    Thanks for sharing this advice. I particularly think the two-way street portion is important. If you always make the relationship about you, that’s not really fair to the person in the mentor position. I think you’ll see those mentors drop out faster than those with mutually beneficial relationships.