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Today we share a very interesting article where I use a lot of examples, rich examples, discussing what makes a good mentee and a bad mentee both in a consulting environment, and I would say in any other environment for that matter, but primarily in a consulting environment. So let’s just start by talking about what makes a good mentee, and I would use a couple of analogies here.

I’m going to start by discussing a story that I tell to all of my mentees and if a mentee is reading this and saying, “But Michael hasn’t told me the story,” it doesn’t mean you’re not my mentee. Just at some point, I am probably going to tell you this story. I even tell this story to partners I mentor.

Star Wars analogy. Anakin Skywalker

It’s a very important story and it comes from a science fiction movie. If you don’t like science fiction movies, I’m going to have to elaborate a little bit, but not too much, so you understand this. If you ever watched the Star Wars movies, there’s a guy there dressed in black who looks like he’s wearing a ventilator all the time, Darth Vader, the evil guy, the one who’s trying to kill everyone. Now what many of you may know or may not know is that Darth Vader was once “a good guy.”

The way the Star Wars movies progress is the story of the universe made up of many worlds that are protected by these very intelligent and very gifted warriors, for lack of a better word, called the Jedi. One of the Jedi knights finds this young boy in a far of planets, and his mother is a slave, but the Jedi knight notices that this boy has exceptional talent. He has powers and skills that are incredibly strong for someone his age. When the Jedi knight sits with this boy and notices his skills, he notices that the boy can do things other people cannot do. That young boy’s name is Anakin Skywalker.

Now, again, I’m not going to bore you too much with the science fiction details, but the story goes something like this. The Jedi knight, I will not give you his name, it is not important, decides to mentor and train Anakin Skywalker because he sees a lot of potential in Anakin Skywalker. And while there is a lot of potential in this young boy, there’s also a lot of debate amongst the Jedi Council of the Jedi knights about whether this young boy can control his powers. There is a belief that he may be too angry and he has such a need for revenge that he is going to abuse the power. The big debate in the Jedi Council is should they continue to teach him all of the unique Jedi skills, knowing full well that there’s a 50-50 chance that he could end up using it for evil.

Eventually, the Jedi knight who found him believes that, “Yes, I can train him and I can guide him.” And this young guy grows up to become very skilled but he is not willing to learn the non-technical skills from his mentor. So the mentor trains him well in the technical skills, but the mentor has not yet passed the non-technical skills, the values, to him. Yet this young guy, Anakin Skywalker, believes he’s ready for everything and basically tries to move away from his mentor. Either way, the story ends in Anakin Skywalker challenging his mentor. They get involved in a fight, the young guy left badly injured, but he survives, and he goes on to become this evil person called Darth Vader.

Why this story is important in the mentor-mentee relationship

The reason it is important is that when I personally look for a mentee, I’m not looking for angels. There’s no such thing as the perfect person with the right set of values, thinking nice thoughts, in cartoon characters, and so on. Everyone has a slightly dark side. That’s human nature. Everyone is battling with that dark side. My job is to find very talented people, bring them into one of our programs, and figure out a way to convert them into someone exceptional. And we are not always successful, my strike rate is probably quite low here, in terms of success. By my standards anyway.

Of the partners I mentor, I do wonder where some of them will end off. We have taught them these great skills. Have they learned the right balance in knowing what is right or wrong? Only time will tell.

I think of the ones that I keep close to me as a very close mentee, they may struggle with things, they may make mistakes, but it’s my job to never allow them to lose control and apply what we’re teaching to do the wrong thing.

As a former management consulting partner, I have certain skills and I have a certain network that I can introduce my mentees into. But the question is do we invite that mentee into that network? And what determines whether or not you get invited is not whether you’re brilliant and calm and whether you have great value. I am telling you right now, most of my mentees have some serious flaws.

Does it make them bad? No, because everyone has serious flaws and the role of a mentor is to guide them to control those things so that it doesn’t control them. And that’s really important to understand.

A great mentee is not someone perfect, it’s someone with the potential to be great. You know, it’s like in this example, with Anakin Skywalker, we mentioned how the Jedi knight knows he had these great skills. Drawing a direct analogy, when I look at someone who speaks well, very logical, great math skills, and so on, I can see a certain potential that other people may not see. And my job is to guide them, extract it and grow it within them.

What is a good mentor?

First thing is that a mentor is not your friend.

People like to pick a mentor who is friendly toward them. I think that’s a very tragic mistake. I am not friendly towards my mentees. Sure I talk to them in a friendly manner. I crack jokes now and again. But I make it very clear to them that while I’m your mentor, I am not your friend, but I’m friendly towards you.

In fact, I think it’s only one mentee, a Chinese lady, that I treat a little bit like a friend because I know her very well. I know all my mentees very well, but I think I know her a little bit better than everyone else, so I treat her more like a friend. But even with her I always tell her very carefully that she must always understand that if she steps out of line, if she does something that I think is wrong, I will very quickly tell her to step back in line.

The problem with being your friend is that friends want to make you feel good.

What happens when you tell a friend you did something wrong? They try to comfort you, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal. Everything will get better”. That’s not my job. My job is not to tell you everything will get better. My job as your mentor is to help you make it better. And that’s a very different relationship that we have versus friends who are just there to comfort you. Friends may even want to help you make it better but may not have the skills, the energy, the capacity, or the wherewithal to actually help you change what had gone wrong.

So a mentor is not your friend. A mentor is not someone who just arrives every month or every two months and says “Oh, how everything is going? You need advice on anything?” That’s a fake mentor. That is someone who wants to be liked.

A mentor is someone who gets involved in your life.

And I tell my mentees this, I want to know everything that goes wrong. I don’t care if you shot someone. The first person you call when something goes wrong is me and you tell me what happened. The reason I need to know what happened is that I can help you through the situation. If I don’t know something went wrong and it impacts you later, I don’t have all of the information to provide you the right advice. And if I find out from someone else that is even worse. And if I don’t have all of the information to provide you with the right advice, we’re going to have a problem because I am going to give you the wrong advice. So that’s not that I dislike you or anything but actually, I’m going to give you advice that’s going to hurt you because I have incomplete information. And I don’t want to hurt you, I want to know what happened.

So when you are picking a mentor, it is not the friendliest person. iIt is not a person who wants to speak to you every two weeks and make you feel good. It’s a person who’s going to know you, get involved and after you speak to them, know they’ve given you some concrete action to take that’s going to change the negative trajectory you’re on. If you are just feeling good with your mentor, that’s not a mentor, that’s a fake mentor, who is actually abusing the right to be called a mentor.

And, of course, this is my personal view on mentorship. There are many people who think differently. There is a whole cottage industry around the world where mentors are assigned just to speak with you for 30 minutes a month and you say “Oh, that’s my mentee”.

To be a friend means that you have to overlook certain things about people and your mentor is not willing to overlook those things.

They are there to accept that change takes time and they are going to guide you, but they are not going to overlook issues. They are not going to say good is good enough. They are looking to turn you into something great. That’s the definition of a good mentor.

What is a good mentee?

1 – Be Honest with your mentor

The first rule of a good mentee is honesty, you got to tell me what is happening. Otherwise, I cannot guide you.

There are a lot of mentees who call me their mentor, but I don’t know how much advice I can give them. I have a mentee in Singapore in McKinsey and he calls me up every 2 or 3 months for advice. But the guy is so cagey about what he’s doing at McKinsey that I actually think I’m adding zero value in his life. I don’t think that I’m actually guiding him at all because he tells me nothing. He gives me some vague things and I can’t guide him. The first rule of being a mentee, you don’t tell me the things that are confidential if you are working at McKinsey or BCG, but you tell me enough that I can guide you, and of course, you let me know what’s happening in your personal life and so on. But if you’re not honest with me, I can’t guide you.

When this guy left McKinsey and became Asia CEO it became worse. There was a complete lack of information and his progress stalled. He emailed me one year later to ask why his friend who is also mentored by me was seeing so much progress. The difference is one of them shared the information I needed to guide them. They also did not disappear for 1 year.

2 – Do something with the advice the mentor gives you

The worst thing for mentees is that they take advice and they don’t do anything with it. And that to me is an immediate sign that this mentee needs to be cut off. Some mentees are so hesitant to take the advice, they end up not doing anything with it. I’m okay if you take the advice, and you adjust it and you tweak it, and you check it with people, and so on. I don’t mind if you do any of those things. I think you should do those things, but do something with your life, don’t just sit there and plan forever until nothing actually happens.

Because it’s very easy for us to do that. Again, there is a whole cottage industry that ends up making us feel good about the fact that we’re average. Think about it. How many books are written about other people going through the same problem? You read about this and you say, “Hey, I have this flaw, and it’s okay to have this flaw.” It’s not okay to have this flaw. That’s a myth, you got to deal with it, so don’t feel good about stalling, do something with the advice, act on this. Even if it doesn’t work, act on this, adjust it and become better at this.

3 – There must be trust between the mentor and mentee

There has to be trust, and I spoke about the first kind of trust whereby the mentee tells you everything. The second kind of trust is the mentor should never divulge what those things are. It’s almost like a patient-doctor relationship. In fact, I would say it is a patient-doctor relationship.

So the mentee needs to share things with their mentors. Then there is the matter of their ability to take feedback and actually do things with it. The third point is that the mentor should never divulge any of the confidential information provided. We go as far as to never divulge someone is a client. Even if you are referred by a colleague, we will not acknowledge that the colleague is a client and never even mention their name. That builds trust.

Good mentee – an example

I am going to refer to the Chinese lady that I mentioned to you, which I treat a little bit like a friend. I think she makes a lot of mistakes. And I didn’t mention this early but mentees give you headaches, they are not pleasant to deal with. You like them obviously, but it can be painful to deal with them. That’s one of the mistakes bad mentors make. They pick people that are easy to mentor. If someone is truly a mentee, you take what’s going through their life seriously. It affects you. It impacts you. It has a direct bearing on your well-being. Because when your mentee goes through an obstacle, you’ve got to apply your mind to help them figure things out. So it’s not a pleasant experience.

The mentee tells me the truth even if it makes her look bad

So the Chinese lady, living in the United States, and I like her because she’s honest, she tells me the truth even if it makes her look bad. She’ll tell me, “I did this, I didn’t do this, and what should I do?” Sometimes she doesn’t share things with me but I don’t think it’s because she doesn’t want to share, I think it’s because she doesn’t know it is important to share. But she shares things with me that I’m pretty sure she doesn’t share with other people.

So as a mentor, I can see the thought process. I can see the things she tries to balance. I can see where her weaknesses are. I can see where she’s afraid. I can see where she lacks confidence. I can see why she’s making the decisions she’s making. I can understand the person behind the person. That’s why when she does something I don’t judge her. I can say, “Ok, you did this.Eeven though 9 times out of 10 people who do this mean the following, I know what you meant by doing this”.

The mentee follows my advice

So she’s a good mentee in that regard. She also follows my advice. I remember giving her some dressing advice, wearing a certain combination of a dress with a certain color belt, and I was actually very surprised that when she went for final round interview, which she passed, I asked what did you do and she said, “Well, I wore this because that’s what you recommended.” This is what I did recommend to her, and she takes the advice very carefully.

She is willing to experiment

The other thing about this mentee is that she is willing to experiment. And I think it’s very important. There is no right path to the top. It is difficult to make partner in any of the major consulting firms. It is not something where they define the route to get there. And I feel with this mentee, whenever she runs into an obstacle, she immediately calls me, “this is my problem, what should I do?” She reached the point where she knows what I’m going to say in certain areas and she if thinks that she already knows that, she will say, “Okay, I know that, but this is what I’m actually thinking.” So I think that’s very useful because the time is used very efficiently. And I actually like that about her.

She is honest and honors the confidentiality 

The fourth thing is that she is honest. We talked about sharing things but sometimes you can share things as a manipulation tactic and I do feel that this mentee is actually honest in what she’s thinking and what she’s doing. And she’s a good mentee.

Now the other thing is the confidentiality issue attached to what I tell my mentee. I do share a lot of confidential things with them but I expect them to honor that confidentiality agreement because I am sharing with her certain advanced skills that I’ve learned that you will likely not find it anywhere else, in any book in the world, because I was a partner. And I’m teaching her how to apply those skills and I prefer if she didn’t share it with the rest of the world. She can share it with her mentee when she gets older, but that’s many years away. The fact that I can see she honors that confidentiality is very important to me.

And I think of the final thing to note about a good mentee is that they are not only there to tell you the good things. They are not just telling you all the nice things that are happening at a professional level. They understand that personal things drive professional decisions and vice versa, so they go quite broad and tell you why they are thinking about things, why it’s affecting them and so on. Because it’s so easy for us to get on the phone and just talk about what’s happening in the office but, of course, things that happen personally affect you, and I need to know what those things are.

Bad mentee – an example

Bad mentees want the mentor involved at the operational level and don’t get things done

I have had bad mentees a couple of times. Some have been so bad we have released them. The worst mentee is the one who, besides doing the opposite of what the good mentee does, does the following. They ask me for advice, I’ll tell them what to do and then they immediately come back and say, “How do I do that? I don’t know how to do it”. If you think about it in practical terms, I don’t know how my mentee spend their lives. I don’t know who they are speaking to at 9 a.m. I don’t know where their manager is sitting in a room. I don’t know what he’s thinking, I don’t know what’s dynamic in that room. So it’s impossible for me to give them specific advice on how to apply that piece of advice in a practical situation. They have got to take the advice and adapt it. And mentees fall for this trap a lot. Some of them say, “Oh, you gave me advice but I am not sure how to do it and therefore I can’t do it.” When a mentee does that it means the mentee wants me to be too involved at an operational level and I need to step back because I know this is the kind of mentee who doesn’t get things done, and a kind of mentee who doesn’t get things done is a bad mentee.

Bad mentees forget the advice and don’t take ownership of their personal development

The second one is a mentee that forgets advice. I really do not like it when a mentee forgets advice. I tell them something very important, and then make sure they understand it, and then a month down the line or two months, they do the opposite. I ask them, “Didn’t we discuss this? and we said we wouldn’t do this” and the mentee will say, “Yeah, I forgot. Next time can you send me a reminder?” When someone says send me a reminder, immediately I want to not mentor them anymore. The reason why is because they don’t take ownership of their development. Basically, they want an executive assistant, they want you to be their executive assistant. They want you on an hourly basis, a daily basis, weekly basis, to remind them what to do. Now if they can’t control their life, even with the best piece of advice, they are not going to do anything with it, and that’s a bad mentee.

Bad mentee don’t trust you with your advice without a sensible reason

Oher examples of bad mentees are obviously related to trust. There is a type of mentee where you give them a lot of time and give them really carefully considered and very specific advice. And what do they do? They go to talk to many different friends and then come back and say, “Oh, I spoke to my friend and he said I should not do it.” I say, “Well, okay, that’s not a problem. Your friend is obviously probably working at a consulting firm. Is he/she a partner? No? Okay, so what qualifies them to change the direction we set after two hours of discussion? Why would you do that?” I’m okay if they come back with this brilliant answer about why your friend was worth listening to but most of the time people don’t have a brilliant answer, They just spoke to their friend. They thought their friend made some sense which they cannot explain and they decide to discard the advice. I’m okay if you change the advice, I’m okay if you just discard the advice. But you had better have a good reason for doing it. And this is not about the logic of the advice. This is purely a trust issue. The mentee is so scared to take customized and counter-intuitive advice that they decide to follow conventional wisdom.

I once told an ex-audit partner who shifted to McKinsey as a principal that is #1 goal is to help his senior partner which their #1 priorities. And that may not be sales generated by the principal. He ignored the advice, did not support his team and was out in 14 months. Because he followed the conventional advice versus the advice that would help him and him alone.

A true mentor-mentee relationship is when the mentor personally invests in you

When a mentor invests in you, when there is a true mentor-mentee relationship, the mentor is personally invested in you. When I look at the good mentee we discussed above and I think about where this lady is going to be 15 years from now, I’m heavily responsible for where she ends up and how successful she will be. And that kind of pressure is what is needed in the mentor-mentee relationship. I need to feel that I’m responsible a little bit for what happens to her or any of our other mentees. But a bad mentee is one who is going to cut off that personal relationship so that over time you feel “Well then, they are not going to listen to you anyway. They are not going to do what you’re saying. They are not going to have a reason for disagreeing with you. So might as well not bother to give them advice.”

In other words, I mentor the person on their entire life, and not just one narrow career problem because it is all connected. But, and this is the kicker, only if they let me.

How do we look for a mentee?

The monkey in Africa

Besides everything we mentioned, there is one particular attribute that I look for in a mentee. I am going to tell you a story to explain this. Do you know how you catch a monkey in Africa? You’re probably wondering what does this have to do with the mentor-mentee relationship? Well, I’ll make the point at the end. The way you catch a monkey in Africa is you put berries and fruits into a log. Now, you put them into a kind of a bag and you put them into a log and the monkeys going to put their hands in the hole in the log, trying to take out the fruit. If the fruit is too large, and it’s a solid piece, the monkey cannot remove the fruit. If you put berries into a bag, the bag is so big that the monkey can pull it out of the log. So they put the hand through. Now, what do you think happens when someone comes along to capture the monkey? You would think the monkey runs away, right? No, the monkey doesn’t run away. The monkey just keeps on holding that fruit and he can’t move the log and he’s stuck there.

What I look for in a mentee is I look for the monkey attribute – never giving up

I don’t care whether or not you got into McKinsey, BCG, Bain

I want someone who is going to do everything within their power legally and ethically to reach their objectives. When I mentor people, I don’t care if they are going to McKinsey. I really couldn’t care less. Because most of them are going to get into McKinsey or BCG. We have a very high placement rate. But we don’t see it as a success. And we don’t start popping champagne and saying congratulations. That was just the skirmish. The real battle is still to come. The war is just getting started. And they have to be committed for the long haul and they will end up as a McKinsey Zombie: the thousands of McKinsey alumni who worked at the firm for <2 years and spend their lives floating around, never really progressing.

What I am interested in is where you are going to end up in 20 years and what positive impact you want and can make 

Are you going to have an impact in the world? Are you going to find out why you were put on this planet and actually live up to your ambitions? Now, to achieve that you have to be a little bit like a monkey. You have to have your one hand on your goals, dreams, whatever you want to call it, and not let go. No matter who’s chasing you. No matter what is chasing you.

And you have to be a pretty smart monkey if you have one hand holding the berries and one hand on the phone, calling me and telling me, “Michael, I’m chasing my dream, but there’s a lot of obstacles, what do I do?” It is true, by the way. That’s how you catch monkeys in Africa. A lot of people have asked me how to be a good mentee. I gave you an example of someone I think was a very good mentee. But this idea of not giving up is very important because you are going to want to give up. You are going to struggle after 2 years. It’s going to be hard. You are going to be competing with many people. You’re not going to know what to do. You will want to decide, “You know what, I got into McKinsey, I am engagement manager now, I’ll take my foot off the accelerator and I’ll just continue living life.” That’s not good enough. When I say hard, it is the thinking part. Not the doing part. So it is lot easier than the physical labour of working at MacDonalds. And yet, too many mentees think that thinking hard in a nice airconditioned office in the central business district while eating organic food for lunch is hard. They decide to opt out and settle.


Partner, FIRMSconsulting

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