Mentoring

Leveraging Internal and External Mentors for Optimal Growth

By Sarah AlexanderJuly 19, 2017

A single career of our own is not enough to learn from every mistake we make. Therefore, it is critical to learn from the mistakes from others as we grow. In today’s world of portfolio careers, it’s important to consider whether a mentor from within or outside your organization (or a combination of both) is the best fit.

To answer these questions, it is important to consider your situation and goals, ask what matters most, and overlay those with the benefits and drawbacks of each type of mentorship.

Internal Mentorship

An internal mentor is particularly effective when you are new to a company or exploring a move to a new in-house function. Similarly, having an internal mentor can be extremely beneficial if you are seeking to advance your career in the organization, navigate a recent promotion, or decide whether a management track is right for you. As a general manager at Marks & Spencer, Richard Worth recalls, “When you get towards being a VP…they make absolutely sure you have at least one mentor who is a board member. They place huge importance on having mentor support for all executives. The relationships with my mentors have lasted 16 years and 10 years, even after both myself and the individual have left the company and gone on to bigger things.”

From a company’s perspective, internal mentorship is a proven component of an effective onboarding program as a it seeks to instill new hires with its culture. Alyssa Schwarts of Lyft observed, “As a company grows really quickly, you tend to lose some of your culture…Mentors have the ability to bring that strong cultural connection. It’s important to have someone you can really talk to, someone who can help you work through problems.” Similarly, internal mentorship can be a powerful part of a company’s growth strategy. This is exactly how Irina Seals built German startup Remerge’s San Francisco office.

That said, one of the primary challenges to internal mentorship relationships is that mentoring is not as valuable if you hold back or make yourself less vulnerable due to concerns about how you might be perceived. If your mentor is a powerful figure who can affect your future, that can be hard to do. Raji Ramanan, a global HR executive with decades of experience, suggests, “Something we do with internal mentorships to increase their success is have the protégé and mentor work on a project together. It helps bring the relationship beyond just talking. It really works and you can see the difference.” On a related note, it can be challenging for mentors to separate their allegiance to your company and to you as a mentee. Providing the advice that is best for the company may not always be appropriate for you on a personal level.

On the flip side, an equally challenging situation could arise once you have built up a relationship of trust with your mentor. If your mentor becomes a champion for you in the organization but then leaves, you could be left empty-handed. Worse, if your mentor leaves the company on less than the best terms, your prospects in the enterprise could be negatively impacted.

External Mentorship

Gregory Wade, who has driven worldwide growth at both BlackBerry and Samsung, has found,  “Mentees are often looking for a sounding board from someone with an objective opinion — someone who hasn’t been through the ringer at the organization. They’re looking for trusted advisors.”

It can sometimes be a challenge to fully portray your company’s culture or constraints to a mentor who has never experienced life at the company. If it is challenging to find common ground, that can pose a barrier to productive mentor-mentee relationship development.

However, this dynamic also leads to great benefits. Mentees who aren’t worried about political risks are more transparent, ask better questions, and are more open to revealing their vulnerabilities and skills gaps that they need to work on. Seasoned city planner and mentor, Niroop Srivatsa observes that her external “mentees are so diametrically opposite regarding what they do, who they are, their age. Yet the common thread is they like somebody listening – they want the freedom to speak about their careers and life goals without being judged.” This is a key benefit of external mentorship: mentors can provide an opportunity to ignore parts of a corporate culture that might limit openness and allow you to be less concerned about saying something politically risky to a senior colleague. This absence of judgment and resulting openness can set the stage for a far more productive mentoring relationship.

Because they are not steeped in the culture and politics of your company, external mentors can provide a refreshing perspective to ask questions like “if you had this project, what approach would you take?” Another area an external mentor can shed perspective on is your career growth if you are considering a change in companies or industries. As Whitney Johnson, author of Dare, Dream, Do, said, “The more portable we are as professionals, the more difficult it is to have an in-house mentor. And the more we think of ourselves as free agents, like a sports pro, the more the idea of an agent… becomes the norm, rather than a stigma.”

Finding the Perfect Blend

If a respected leader offers you mentorship, take it! Internal mentors who see your potential and want to help you grow can also evolve into sponsors who can open doors for your career. Such a relationship is priceless in developing your career. More generally, maintaining relationships inside the company will ensure you have advisors who will provide on-the-spot mentoring.

At the same time, having an external mentor will allow you to take advantage of having someone outside the political fray who can provide an unbiased opinion and has your personal best interests in mind. This mentor can also be helpful if you are considering a move in your career between companies and/or industries.  

Whether you will benefit most from an internal or external mentorship is completely dependent on your personal situation and career goals. Generally, in today’s world of “portfolio careers,” it is important to develop a reflective “portfolio of mentors” that will allow you to take advantage of all the benefits both types have to offer as you grow.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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