Great Mentors Share These 3 Qualities

December 13, 2017

There are the obvious table-stakes for being a good mentor: You need a certain amount of life experience to develop insights and wisdom. But what are the X-factors that make someone a best-in-class mentor, the kind of person who can provide transformational guidance to help others succeed?

It’s a question that has always intrigued me, and it’s hard to think of a better person to ask than David Reimer, CEO of Merryck & Co. Americas. Yes, he happens to be a colleague of mine, now that I’ve joined Merryck after a long career at The New York Times. But 1:1 executive mentoring is a core part of our business, and David has interviewed more than 200 former C-suite executives as potential Merryck mentors, and only brought about 10 percent of them on board.

What are his criteria? What are the qualities he’s looking for? I twisted his arm on a recent 11-hour flight to write out his answer, and I’m turning over the rest of the post to David to share his thoughts. Here’s what he wrote:

I am looking for three qualities: curiosity, courage and a spirit of generosity.

Let’s start with curiosity. When I’m interviewing a potential mentor, I may ask her about something in the news, something complicated and messy. I’m never looking for a specific answer, I just want to hear and see how her mind unpacks a problem that doesn’t have a “right” solution. After all, the ability to see the world from more perspectives than your own is a pretty fundamental measure of “demonstrated curiosity.” And I want to understand if that extends beyond business problems, too. When you’re mentoring an executive, it’s not uncommon when they’re in the middle of working through a tough quarter or an intensive board prep to have them look at you and ask, “How did you stay married for 30 years while doing this?” Pivoting between those two conversations takes more than business skills and battle scars. It takes self-reflection. It takes interest in the person across the table. It takes curiosity to wonder how complex relationships fit together. You have to be genuinely excited by the hunt for interesting answers.

Then there’s courage, a word that is often overused, but it’s vital for mentoring. If a mentoring relationship is going to be productive, the mentor sometimes has to force some really hard conversations — the ones that literally no one else will have. I worry a lot when I talk to a potential mentor who really needs to be liked. That usually doesn’t work out, because that mentor won’t confront a tough issue when the times comes. Here’s courage: we once mentored a top executive who had endured a difficult childhood — alcoholic and abusive parents, pretty horrific stuff. This client would explicitly use that background as an excuse for blowing up at people on his team. Early in the relationship, the mentor interrupted him trying to justify an outburst from the office and said, “Look, I’m incredibly sorry that happened to you. It’s heartbreaking that your childhood was like that. But no one at work should ever have to pay the price for it. It’s totally inexcusable. I care about you, but I’m telling you this is non-negotiable.” To me, that’s courage. And that executive would tell you today that this conversation changed not only his career, but his life. In good mentoring, this happens more often than you think.

By the way, curiosity and courage have to come together for a mentor in their own history. The first part of that is about really examining the failures in one’s own career and life — and we all have them — and asking the question: “What did I take away from that experience?” And the second, closely related question is, “How did I recover?” Both questions demand genuine curiosity to even be asked, and they take guts to answer honestly. If you haven’t done that, mentoring someone else through a tough passage can really trigger your own blindspots and wreak havoc with your objectivity.

The third quality is generosity. For a mentor to be effective, the focus needs to be entirely on the person on the other side of the table. When you’re mentoring someone and you hear about him making a big career jump, or read what an exemplary leader she’s become, and your very existence isn’t mentioned in any memo, conversation or article, that has to be okay. In fact, more than okay — you have to love that feeling.

To be clear, we all have egos and we all, at a basic human level, need recognition. But one of the things that sets good mentors apart is that their ego gets fed by knowing they’re doing something meaningful to others and that their work, however private or confidential, is making a huge difference in someone’s life. One of our mentors called me on a recent Saturday to tell me his client had been confirmed for a big promotion. He was bursting with pride. Then he said in a very quiet voice, “Can I share something with you in confidence?” He started to read me a short thank-you note she’d sent him. Really simple, just three or four sentences telling him how much their work together had galvanized her confidence and pushed her to become more of the leader she aspires to be. And partway through reading it, he stopped because he was too choked up to speak.

As a mentor, there’s a purity in those moments that you don’t find in many other places. But then, I’m a tad biased.

What does everyone think about David’s framework? Anything else you would add to the list? Do you see those qualities in mentors you’ve had? Please share your thoughts below.

Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, he interviewed more than 500 CEOs and other leaders for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. He is the author of two books, including “Quick & Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.”

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