Can you mentor “up”?

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    Mark Hammer
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    I won’t go on about the benefits of mentoring and being mentored, since that seems fairly self-evident by now. But I think it bears noting that our image of mentor/mentee relationships is that the mentor is also not only older, but also higher up in the organization than the mentee.

    I have long suspected, and wrote a piece in a profession newsletter about 8-10 years ago, that many of our approaches to, and perceptions of, work, work relationships, and employer-employee relations, are partly formed on the basis of our understanding of family relationships, in addition to our earliest work experiences. So the question arises as to whether advice and guidance ONLY flows top-down, or whether it can flow upwards.

    We do not expect mom or dad to consult junior regarding the status of their marriage and how to make it better. In part, that’s because we don’t expect the unmarried to know much about marriage, partly because we are very selective in who we discuss issues of intimacy with, but I think just as importantly because the role of parent is assumed to require the perception of omnipotence, infallibility, and nary any issues of confidence. And consultation with a child basically crumples that perceived status up like so much paper and tosses it in the waste bin.

    Mom and dad likely WILL consult with junior when junior is more grown up, and there are some decisions to be made about selling the house, health, or similarly serious matters. But by that point, the function of parent does not require the perception of infallibility.

    Now, while many folks do equate “career success” with moving up the ranks, and acquiring more authority, not everyone does. I am one such individual, but I know I am not alone. I know there is a perennial challenge to find science managers in government, because scientists want to BE scientists, and not managers. And that is simply one such example. At this point in my working life, everyone in a position above me is younger than me, often by 10-20 years. And, as is often the case for the high flyers, they are new to the organization, or at least newer than the grey and flatulent like myself. I certainly know more about the organization’s history and its inner workings, and volumes more about organizational functioning and public admin in general, than they do, largely because I have time to devote to acquiring such knowledge, as opposed to frantically doing paperwork and running from meeting to meeting like they do.

    Is it possible for managers to be mentored by those at a lower organizational level than themselves? Do folks at lower levels have anything useful to offer? And, assuming one’s tentative answer is “Yes”, what sort of conditions need to exist in order to do that?

    Do leaders need to be perceived as omnipotent and infallible to carry out their jobs and roles, or do they lose the ability to do their jobs in the way they and others expect them to if they consult below their rank, rather than being the one who dispenses guidance and wisdom to those below them?

    Can you still be “the dad” if you find it helpful asking your kids for advice? What could we put in place to make that alternative a viable one?

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