What to do when a mentor blocks your career

Herminia Ibarra Leadership The Financial Times

Too many bosses are failing to pull up the promising people below, says Herminia Ibarra

“You have to kill the mentor,” said one of my students.

A murmur of agreement went round my executive MBAs class. We were discussing the case of a 39-year-old manager who had been promised a big promotion by his mentor but the new post was not materialising.

He needs to be patient, some of my students felt; big jobs like that don’t appear overnight, not these days. He wasn’t asking for it aggressively enough, thought others; maybe he didn’t really want it after all.

By far the most popular hypothesis, however, was that the manager was too useful to his mentor right where he was. Having guided his ascent, the mentor was now blocking his protégé’s move to a truly senior role.

I asked the class: “How many of you have had a similar experience?” About half raised their hands.

Mentors can hold us back as often as they push us forward, especially in this lean corporate era of “doing more with less,” when keeping a reliable subordinate in place can feel like the only way to get some slack. Insecure about their own position and overwhelmed by the demands on their time, too many bosses today fail to pull up the promising people below.

Their “generativity” needs — the term coined by development psychologist Erik Erikson to describe the post mid-life desire to give back by guiding the next generation — are stifled by corporate churn.

Just as children leave home, so it is to be expected that protégés will want to distance themselves from their mentors, psychologically or physically, says Boston University’s Kathy Kram, a pioneer of mentoring research. Mentors who are not ready for the separation can feel abandoned, angry or resentful and even impede their protégé’s advancement.

Finding his career progression stalled, the hero of our story started sneaking behind his mentor’s back, networking outside the company to generate other opportunities. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says: “People only flirt with serious things”. It was only a matter of time before he got an external offer; one he decided to take.

How did the mentor react to our protagonist’s news? With rage. “How can you do this to me?” he glowered, “I was grooming you for bigger things.”

This sort of episode was sadly familiar for my executive students, many of them veterans of dysfunctional superior-subordinate relationships.

As the cliché goes, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. Getting away from a manager who treats them poorly, says a 2015 Gallup survey, is the number one reason employees quit their jobs.

After publication of his best-selling book, The No Asshole Rule, Stanford professor Robert Sutton was inundated by stories about toxic bosses, inspiring his subsequent book, Good Boss, Bad Boss . When the “bad boss” is also a mentor, the disillusionment and rupture are personal.

When and how does one extricate oneself from a noxious mentoring relationship while minimising career damage?

People can remain in doubt about abusive relationships, as our hero did, when they have nothing to compare them with. That is why Prof Kram advises building diverse sources of counsel rather than relying on a single mentor.

The actual break-up requires delicate handling. Do not attempt to give feedback to your mentor while emotions are running high, my students advised. Above all, strive to maintain a good reputation within a professional network that inevitably includes people around the former mentor.

Allow time for the relationship to grow into something else, Prof Kram also advises. One of my students quit but called his former boss a few weeks later and pretended the eruption never happened, to the embarrassed boss’s relief.

Accepting that a relationship with a valued teacher has run its course is painful but it is a necessary part of coming into one’s own.

Just like in so many Hollywood stories, from Batman to Star Wars, the death of the mentor signals that the time has come for the protagonist to grow and face the unknown alone.

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