Frank Dreier attributes a great deal of his success as a senior executive at Fortune 500 companies to mentorship. Though Frank never got paired with an official mentor, his supervisors early on filled the role in an unofficial capacity. “Every boss I had was also a mentor, so I got some outstanding business advice,” Frank says, looking back. This advice was usually given over a casual post-work beer or during an impromptu chat in the break room.
As much as he values the guidance he got from his bosses back then, Dreier does wish he’d had access to external mentors too. “External mentors can be the most beneficial when you are able to talk about issues you have with your coworkers, things that you might not talk about with anybody at your company.”
Still, the unofficial partnerships Dreier had were so valuable to his career that now, as an experienced executive, he has embraced being a mentor himself. Dreier has mentored several times through Everwise and receives a great deal of praise from his proteges who credit his collaborative, outside-the-box approach to problem solving. We asked Dreier for advice on building trust in a mentorship, how he structures meetings without making them prescriptive, and what mentoring has taught him about great leadership.
What do you need for a successful mentor/protege partnership?
The foundation is that you need to totally trust each other. If you are in a working relationship you need to know that whatever is being talked about in person is not going to leave that room. You need to be totally open about what really matters to you, what is really going on, and what is really bothering you. You have to have a forum where you can discuss things in a way where you will not get any positive or negative feedback.
The way that I look at mentorship, it’s not about telling people exactly what to do, but guiding them to ask new questions or discover new pathways and new ways to think about things. That way they can make a more educated decision, one which they would otherwise not be able to make because just thinking about it themselves they wouldn’t be able to see the forest for the trees, they wouldn’t see all the options that they really have.
When you’re problem solving with proteges, do you use a lot of examples from your own life or speak more generally to career decisions?
It’s a mix. What I prefer to do is ask questions. Sometimes people have overlooked certain doors in the building, to paraphrase it. They have just not thought about all the options they really have. I don’t tell them, “This is what you need to do.” It’s basically opening up new doors, new questions.
You mentioned that there’s a lot of trust that has to be built as a part of the partnership. How do you build that trust?
What I’ve found is that the best way is to meet in person. If I had the choice I would always prefer to meet in person, at least for the first meetings. It’s not always possible, but it makes a big difference in building that trust faster.
With my Everwise partnerships it’s happened once. It happened in a situation where there was a great level of skepticism on what the heck all this mentorship was good for, but being able to meet for an hour or two and talk face-to-face totally changed the way we were interacting. If you meet only over the phone or through video conference the trust can still build, but it’s not as fast and it won’t happen on the first call. If you can’t meet in person trust will develop over time as your protege realizes you are not judging them, that you’re not telling them what to do, that you’re listening instead and opening up new pathways, new ideas and then letting them decide.
Do you have a set structure you use in your mentorships?
Yes, I have a structure, but as we get into our discussions you see whether the structure makes sense or not. I don’t tell people what to do. I question them in a way that guides them through challenges. We have concrete goals on what needs to be done before the next meeting. In the first call I’m just trying to get a certain level of information and set up very clear expectations for each other, so that when we leave this relationship in six months or nine months from now we know whether we were successful.
What do you enjoy most about being a mentor? What do you get out of the partnership?
There are several ways I’ve benefited from being a mentor. There’s a real satisfaction in being able to help someone, knowing that at the beginning of our relationship there were questions, they had problems and at the end of our relationship we have solved them or at least the protege knows where to go. There’s nothing more satisfying than that. Knowing that someone really values what you have to say and believes that you have helped them in their career and sometimes even their private lives. So that’s really the most important benefit for me.
The other benefit is twofold – one is that you get insight into categories and industries in business that you would not otherwise get insight into. It’s interesting to see how they run things in a totally different industry than the one I’m familiar with. And then I’ve discovered that my proteges can introduce me to a totally different perspective on something that I thought was just one way. So it helps you to get a more balanced view. I grow from the partnerships as well.
Would you say your mentors affected your development into a manager and, eventually, leader?
You certainly learn from your bosses and from the way they treat you in the discussions that you have with them. You realize that if you become a leader the people on your teams will probably have similar questions. That makes you a bit more open to the discussions that go beyond day-to-day work.
What kinds of challenges do your proteges encounter most?
They’ll say: How do I know if my career is moving in the right direction? I have a bad relationship with my boss or have no relationship with my boss — how can I improve that? I don’t get recognition for my work — what do I do? Should I be taking classes outside my company? Should I sign up for an MBA program? I have a team member who isn’t performing well — what is the best way to help that team member be more productive? Should I accept a job offer from another company or accept a job offer within my company?
And what do you tell them?
I don’t tell them what to do; I try to help them better understand what is it that’s important to them, the advantages, disadvantages, and any risks associated. Often when you get an offer like a job opportunity outside your company, it’s so exciting. And you might be so focused on this great opportunity that you forget to consider the many great opportunities inside your company. It can be advantageous to see if there are internal opportunities too. I’d encourage you to explore all the possibilities so that you can make a more informed decision. It’s about opening up and helping see all the alternatives. I will not tell them accept the job or don’t accept the job, but I help them understand their options better and lay the groundwork so they can make the most informed decision.