Letting go of one’s defenses and being truly open with a senior leader is one of the most daunting challenges new mentees face.
Mark was just promoted to a new, more demanding role. To ease his transition, he was assigned a mentor. He was glad about it but more than a little uncomfortable knowing that Tom was a senior leader and like others in the firm, he would be watching Mark to see how well he performed in his new job. The pressure to succeed added to the nervousness he already felt when he met with his mentor Tom, the Senior VP for Finance, for the first time.
Despite warm, genuine and friendly interest from Tom, Mark found it difficult to be open. He tried but he felt he had to weigh his words carefully in responding to Tom’s questions, especially when he was asked about his background and past experience. When Tom asked Mark about his work challenges, Mark was even more circumspect. He was uncomfortable revealing too much about his situation, in part, because he feared that he would be “judged” by his answers.
Instead of using his mentoring time productively to talk about his struggles or share the constructive feedback he had gotten from his supervisor, Mark shut down and kept the conversation “safe.” He and Tom did plenty of talking but conversation remained on the surface and never went very deep. Tom tried to draw Mark out and to stimulate some meaningful dialogue but he was never able to penetrate Mark’s defenses. Their interactions, while pleasant enough, had little impact on Mark’s effectiveness as a leader.
Many mentees (like Mark) are afraid to be vulnerable. The “imposter syndrome” (the fear of being found out or found wanting) often prevents a mentee from being open. When a mentee is unwilling or unable to be open, the mentor actually ends up working with an imposter (the real person is camouflaged). When the real person doesn’t show up, it doesn’t take long for the mentor to lose interest, energy and enthusiasm.
Being open is essential in a mentoring relationship. Because meaningful dialogue takes place it builds, strengthens and enhances the relationship. Both the mentor and mentee own the conversation and regularly engage in it by reflecting, sharing, owning, revealing, growing and learning.
Being open makes some people uncomfortable, not just defensive. Unfortunately, being open is easier said than done. If you are a mentee, you need to demonstrate openness both proactively and reactively. If you are one of those people, the key lies in getting over yourself, and at your own pace, beginning to reveal the real you. Here are some strategies that may help you: