Do you have the wrong mentor?

Taking brave and proactive steps to change the relationship can yield beneficial results.

As finance and accounting professionals navigate not only the complexities of the digital age, but also the increasing volatility of the business environment, the role of high-quality mentorship is increasingly highlighted by leaders. In modern business, a mentor is typically defined as someone who offers his or her knowledge, wisdom, and guidance to someone with less experience.

"Mentors give advice and expert opinion, and they often open doors and networks," said Adelle Wapnick, an executive coach and leadership development expert based in South Africa. "The discipline of mentorship is a vital component of career enhancement, and in helping professionals to deal with change and complexity."

"Within the finance profession, mentors help to create a positive learning and knowledge-sharing environment, lending expertise but, at the same time, not dictating or instructing," added Jason Hamilton, ACMA, CGMA, chair, CIMA Africa Network Committee.

Yet, as with any other relationship, mentorships can be mismatched from the beginning, or they can stagnate over time. According to Wendy Murphy, Ph.D., associate dean at Babson College in Massachusetts and co-author of Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life, around 20% of formal mentoring relationships yield negative experiences for one or both parties.

"Problematic mentor relationships are more common than we would like to think," Murphy said. "The good news is that in taking action to address the problems, you can learn a lot about yourself and position yourself for more satisfying connections with others."

Hamilton said: "The mentor/mentee relationship is one that could and should span over a long period of time, and as such the pace of progress for both parties can be a source of frustration. If the mentee starts to feel that the process isn't working, it doesn't necessarily imply that you have the wrong mentor but instead could indicate that the strategy that has been crafted needs to be reviewed and realigned."

FM magazine spoke to Hamilton, Wapnick, and Murphy to find out how finance professionals can re-evaluate their mentor relationships and assess if they have the right mentor to guide them through the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Clarify expectations. According to Murphy, the first step is to revisit and clarify the expectations on both sides. These expectations should span from the practicalities of meeting (how often, in what format, for how long, etc.) to the quality and content of the interactions (what is discussed, who leads, desired outcomes, etc.). She recommended that these conversations take place in person or via phone calls to minimise the possibility of misunderstandings creeping in.

"Generally, it will be easier for the mentor to raise important questions about expectations and the quality of interactions because of the power differential created by their hierarchical status," Murphy said. "Yet when a mentor is too busy to notice a problem or lacks the relational skills to begin this kind of reflective process, courageous action on the part of a mentee can eliminate the relational problem and move the relationship forward."

Murphy also noted that when mentees are encouraged to bring their concerns to their mentors, they are usually "pleasantly surprised to find their mentors are receptive and interested in what they have to say".

During the process of re-evaluation and assessment, Murphy advised mentees to discuss their experience and possible doubts with a third party. If the relationship sits within the structure of a formal mentorship programme, mentees should approach a peer in the programme or the programme director, she said.

Break down assumptions. Personal assumptions and interpretations are part of any relationship, and Wapnick urged mentees to practise "open and honest" communication to break down any assumptions that could be harming the relationship.

"To do this, the mentee should seek to understand the narrative that comes from the mentor, before sharing his or her own perspective," she said. "By practising deep listening and developing a shared story rather than focusing on one's own story, you can begin to break down assumptions."

For instance, if you think that your mentor is deliberately avoiding face-to-face meetings because he or she is disinvested in the relationship, then bring this point to light with a view to listening with an open mind and empathetic approach to the response — and recognising that you are potentially carrying a negative narrative. The real reason for holding telephone meetings might be very different; for instance, your mentor might be taking health precautions and trying to protect her family.

According to Wapnick, not only are these relational skills the foundations of a good conversation, but they are necessary to move the relationship into a more authentic and meaningful place.

"Ideally, these conversations should take place in person, as these interactions require looking into the other's eyes, speaking from the heart, and potentially sharing feelings," she said.

Hamilton said: "A good mentor will encourage candour and be able to communicate honest and constructive feedback directly and clearly."

Develop meaningful questions. As with any high-quality relationship, it takes time and effort to build up a meaningful rapport with a mentor. If the interactions feel stale or unfruitful, Murphy encouraged mentees to become more proactive and steer the relationship.

For instance, develop good questions to ask and practise deep listening skills during your meetings, she said. Questions could include, for example, "How did you get into your current position?", "What challenges have you had to overcome?", or "How have you navigated through organisational or cultural hurdles?"

"Get to know your mentor in a deeper way, and use the interactions as an opportunity to nurture your curiosity and hone your listening skills," Murphy added.

By learning to pay more attention during the meetings and taking small risks within the conversations, professionals will then be in a better position to take accountability for the relationship — and fairly assess their mentor's suitability.

Identify areas of strength. If there are troubling signs of misalignment, it's important to look closely and observe if there are any parts of the relationship worth saving, Wapnick advised.

"For instance, if you identify that your mentor is strong in one area, such as networking, but not in another (maybe technical or relational), then you may wish to re-contract in a different way," she explained.

This could include seeing your mentor less often but becoming more purposeful and precise during meetings. It might mean dialling down on open-ended conversations and only exploring certain technical or leadership issues.

"The relationship dynamic might need to shift, but you may continue to benefit from it," Wapnick said.

Murphy also noted that in a business environment characterised by complexity, professionals can benefit from having multiple mentors.

"If one relationship isn't as helpful as you were hoping, it is worth your time to cultivate a network of mentors who can provide different types of support at different levels of intensity when needed," she said.

Making a formal break. Having re-assessed the relationship using the above steps, finance professionals may decide that it is better to formally end the mentorship. "The mentoring process is usually started with a very specific set of outcomes in mind, and if these are reached, the need for mentoring can come to an end — specifically if the mentee has now developed new goals that are not aligned to the mentor's expertise," Hamilton said. "If the mentee refers back to the initial goals and strategy, he or she will be able to articulate very clearly why they have reached this decision, which should aid in preserving the relationship once the mentorship ends."

In addition to referring to the initial goals, Wapnick urged mentees to contact the mentorship programme administrator to get the necessary support to make closure in a professional and structured way.

"Ensure open, honest communication no matter the context or situation," she said. "As with any meaningful relationship, a courageous conversation at the time of change is one way in which to avoid conflict — remembering that moving in professional circles may mean that you meet again under different circumstances."

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at