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  • Janeen Shaffer, PCC

Cautionary Tale about Mentors

An effective mentor can provide a huge advantage to your professional career. A mentor who is respected in their field, committed to their development, and who provides advice on lessons of failures, successes, and best practices can serve as a key influencer for your career path and decisions.

I have noticed with my clients there is a cautionary tale about mentoring relationships. This information can help mentors and mentees understand the impact and consequences of their roles and take appropriate action. It is important to understand that even though you respect your mentor, as a mentee, it is important to remember that you must use your discernment and judgment when taking the mentor's advice.

I have witnessed detrimental consequences of clients taking advice from mentors while dismissing their own wisdom and experience. An example is an executive who took a senior leadership role at the advice of his mentor. The mentor had worked with the executive 10 years ago, knew the organization's leaders who wanted to fill the position, and believed the executive would be perfect for the job. Within two years, the executive was relieved from the position. The role was within a company with a completely different culture than the executive was used to in terms of bureaucracy layers, performance expectations of teams, and C-suite expectations of leading change. The executive left the role concerned about his reputation, dealing with the emotions of a failed leadership role, and disappointed about letting down his mentor. Here are tips on using your discernment with a mentor’s advice.

1) Assess how your mentor knows you and has witnessed your skills.

Think about the last time you worked with your mentor and if he/she ever worked with you for a period of time that allowed them to get a good gauge of your strengths and growth areas. Perhaps you have a strong connection with your mentor but the depth of your mentor's understanding and observations of your experience may be light. A mentor’s advice is helpful but may not always be accurate around your capabilities. One of my clients has a mentor from her days pursuing her Master’s degree. He recently recommended that she pursue a career in academia since she recently completed her Ph.D. During her master’s program, she was very interested in the academic path. Several years later, she is interested in staff scientist roles in the industry. Her mentor understands the strengths of her skills and capabilities but he doesn’t understand her new career interests.

2) Understand where your motivations align, or don’t, with your mentor.

Perhaps your motivations are getting promoted, recognized, and making more money. Perhaps your mentor’s motivations are making an impact and working on strategic efforts. All these motivations are important but they are different and will influence choices and perspectives on experiences. Understand what motivates you and your mentor so that their advice is put into an informed context.

3) Look at the whole situation beyond the advice of your mentor.

When seeking advice from a mentor, you may be thinking about switching roles or how to work better with your advocates and distractors, or getting more education. Your knowledge and experience in the context of your work setting are important to rely upon for informing you about the next best action. The input from your mentor can be vital but it may not be comprehensive because they are not in your shoes.

4) Trust your wisdom, experience, and instincts.

In the example at the beginning of the article, the executive knew that they worked best in certain cultures and team dynamics. The mentor did not have this awareness. The executive had concerns but felt he could learn and navigate the culture and new teams effectively, especially since his mentor believed so strongly in him. In the end, these aspects of the role were the key reasons he was asked to leave.

Mentors are important, and without mine, the trajectory of my career would be much different than it is today. Their wisdom, counsel, and commitment to my interests and goals helped frame my decisions about positions to accept, education to pursue, and ultimately starting my business. A mentor’s advice is important to take action on when it aligns with your goals, values, and wisdom. The advice that doesn’t work for you can be set aside with gratitude and no additional action is needed.

Janeen Shaffer is a PCC certified coach helping individuals and leaders with their internal development and external performance. If the article resonated with you, follow me on LinkedIn and check my other articles. Contact me at,, IG @janeen.shaffer, Pinterest Shaffer Coaching + Consulting.


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