Your Mentor Is Your Booster Rocket
How high you rise in your career is often determined by how influential your mentors are
Last week I wrote about one of the key functions of mentors, namely making sure that you are aware of all the negative things people are thinking and saying about you behind your back. Everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether or not you know what is on yours. Without awareness, there is no choice. You can’t correct problems you don’t even know exist.
Today I’ll talk about another key function of mentors: being a patron of your career success.
This patronage function is mostly, but not entirely, for professional mentors such as a boss. This idea is also heavily shaped by my background in professional services, though is important enough that everyone should take it into account.
After joining the firm now known as Accenture, I ended up assigned to Walgreens as a client, where I spent several years working on a project to help them transform their pharmacy operations. The project manager of that project was himself a few years away from making partner in the firm at that time. But he ultimately did, and after success in client facing work rose to become the Chief Information Officer.
The fact that he had a very long and successful career at Accenture was very good for me, because he used his growing clout to bring me up along with him. Were it not for being attached to this manager I started working for as a young staff consultant, chances are my own career would never have amounted to much.
Mentors in the corporate, political, and other worlds are often patrons of your career. And how much success they have ends up having a lot to do with how much success you have.
I mentioned in my last piece that this boss had sent me to executive coaching. This was a very expensive undertaking that not only involved thousands in fees, but me flying to Minneapolis for every meeting with my coach. The reason we were able to do that was because my boss controlled a nine figure annual budget at the time. He and I didn’t need to go begging for money to do it. He could simply spend the cash. Not many people can do that. Without that coaching, my career might have gone straight into a ditch.
That’s just one small example of the value of a powerful mentor to your career. Whenever my boss would get promoted, that was also an opportunity for him to elevate me to new levels under him. He could fight for me in annual performance rating meetings to get me a good raise or a promotion. In professional services, career progression is zero sum and up or out. So you need a powerful patron to represent your interests in those discussions.
In many environments, how successful you can be is to some extent determined by how successful your mentors are. They are the booster rocket for your career. How powerful that rocket is can be a big factor in how successful you are.
We see this in the rise of “nepo babies” in so many domains, for example. For some people, their career patron is mom or dad.
This is not to say that you can’t succeed without someone simply pulling you up. But having someone powerful who opens doors for you, gives you endorsements, fights for you, etc. is extremely helpful.
This help is especially needed in “closed network” environments like many professional services firms. The concept of open vs. closed networks so important that I may do an entire third installment in this series talking about it. But in a closed network, connections internal to the organization or community are decisive in determining your status. So patronage inside the organization or field is critical.
In those environments, how high you can rise in the organization is heavily determined by who your mentors and supporters are. So you need to find a way to attach yourself to someone who is likely to rise rapidly and high themselves.
A lot of times, the mentors and bosses we have are products of random chance. I just happened to get assigned to a project where I happened to work for someone who ended up being very successful in the firm. Had he flamed out or had a mediocre career, my being attached to him would have hurt me. If he left for some other company and didn’t take me with him, that might have left me high and dry. Had he risen even higher to become the CEO, that probably would have benefitted me even more.
In whatever domain you are in, it is worth actively considering the likely career trajectory of your bosses or mentors. If they are average type people, probably heading for the exit, etc., you may need to start looking to build additional relationships with high performers. You need to build relationships with A players above your level.
Of course, if this mentor is your patron, then you are his client. This means there’s likely an expectation on you that you will to some extent support his own career interests. You are expected to be part of his posse. This can be mutually beneficial, but sometimes can hurt you if you are unable to get the personal and professional development you need, are inhibited from pursuing opportunities, etc.
These relationships can get tense or break down, particularly if you are someone who is capable of rising above the level of your mentor. The case of Jamie Dimon is instructive. He spent many years working for the legendary banker Sandy Weill, ending up at Citigroup. They two ultimately had a falling out, possibly because Dimon wanted to be seen as an equal. Jamie Dimon is now the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, and arguably the most successful and powerful bank CEO in the country.
Sometimes, these relationships are not destined to last forever.
In any case, mentors are more than just people who give you good advice. In the best cases they are people who actually do things to advance your career. And they can’t do much of that unless they are high influence people themselves. That’s something to keep firmly in mind.
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