De-Bunking Five Common Myths of Mentorship

Years ago at an industry conference, I was preparing for a panel discussion on biotech leadership when one of my co-panelists casually remarked, “I wish people I don’t know would stop emailing me and asking me to mentor them!” He wasn’t unwilling to mentor, but he was perplexed as to how these strangers thought he could help them. And he felt mentoring was a “drain” on his already over-booked calendar. What a shame, I thought to myself, that he and those seeking his input were missing out on potentially valuable connections.

Over years of engaging in dozens of mentoring relationships (as both mentor and mentee), I’ve enjoyed many valuable connections, and also seen some failed mentoring attempts. To most effectively seek out and engage with potential mentors, it may be helpful to dispel five common misconceptions, or myths, about mentoring.

Myth 1: When Seeking Mentors, It’s Best to Look for People Who Are Just Like You.
Just as the diversity of background, gender, and race in Board rooms drives better decision-making, the diversity of your mentor network can provide richer perspectives and insights. Conversely, people who are most like you may also share your biases and blind spots. Seek mentoring relationships with people you want to learn from and who can complement your experiences and perspectives. Cast the net broadly.

Countless famous examples illustrate this. Take Coach John Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Mahatma Gandhi mentoring Nelson Mandela, or Sheryl Sandberg’s crediting mentorship from Lawrence Summers in setting her career trajectory. In each of these cases, mentor and mentee shared a common interest but came from extraordinarily different backgrounds and experiences.

From my personal experience, because I tend to be more analytical, some of my most valuable mentors have been the most intuitive leaders. They challenge me to balance “head, heart, and guts.” When I was new national sales leader at Centocor, a J&J subsidiary, the commercial vice president pushed me to deliver my first national address without any slides or data. He taught me the importance of connecting and inspiring people through storytelling, a great way to capture hearts and open minds.

Myth 2: Formalizing the Mentoring Process Drives Success
Mentorship = connection + guidance. When most effective, it is grounded in trust, mutual respect, and often a shared interest or passion for a business or an issue or challenge of import. These things are difficult to force. When a first-time introduction opens with: “Will you be my mentor?” (which always reminds me of that children’s book Are You my Mother? by P.D. Eastman), it implies a formal ongoing commitment, which can be off-putting to some in a first meeting, as was the case with my co-panelist mentioned earlier. Instead, focus first on simply making a connection. For example, maybe ask: “Would you be willing to speak with me about your lessons learned transitioning into Company X?”

When you secure time with a potential mentor, make the interactions relevant. Do some research on LinkedIn and find a common interest or topic. (This is not stalking! It’s showing respect for the person’s time). Take a similar approach for ongoing interactions. Instead of closing with, “This was so helpful. Can we schedule monthly meetings to speak?”, perhaps try: “This was so helpful. Would you mind if I reach out from time to time in the future to get your input on business challenges we may be facing?” Then reach out when an opportunity presents itself.

Myth 3: The Best Mentors Are the Most Senior People in the Organization
Mentors can be peers or leaders more junior to you, and can come from across companies and industries. Who doesn’t appreciate the example of Michelle Robinson mentoring Barack Obama? Michelle Robinson (better known now as Michelle Obama), was designated as Barack’s mentor at the law firm where she worked as an attorney at while he was a summer associate. Barack often credits Michelle today as being the support and success behind his great achievements.

Seeking mentorship from someone in a role/job that you might see as your ‘next move’ can be very valuable. In addition, having mentors across multiple levels/spans in an organization provides multiple perspectives.

When I first joined J&J, coming into industry from a consulting and financial services background, some of the most valuable mentors were sales representatives and managers. They understood better than anyone what was happening with customers and those we serve. The most successful leaders in healthcare, or any industry for that matter, make a point of staying connected to those on the front lines of their business. Whether it’s hospital executives who seek guidance from front line nursing staff, or pharmaceutical executives who seek perspectives from bench scientists — The most valuable mentorship disregards the hierarchy. If you are sought out for guidance by someone senior to you, think about what insights can you bring to the table.

Myth 4: Mentoring is Always Best ‘One on One’ and is a Burden on the Calendar
A few years ago, I was part of a step counting competition sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) at Johnson & Johnson. People were fiercely competitive, and I was no exception. I began walking around campus during calls to get my steps in. When I noticed other people, doing the same thing, I saw an opportunity. Thus was born “Mentoring on the Move.” I put out a notice to anyone who wanted to join and a group of us would walk around the campus during lunch. I would talk to a few people, but with larger turn outs, people would talk to each other as well. Themes and helpful advice would emerge from the conversations, and some people found new mentoring relationships in the process.

In these days of long zoom hours, I schedule ‘walking meetings’ with mentors/mentees – we’re on the phone and both out walking to take a break from the screen. Let go of preconceived notions about mentoring sessions. Mentoring can occur in a 10-minute phone call to get a quick reaction to an idea, or through an email or text exchange with a quick question, or by sharing a link to an article of possible mutual interest.

Myth 5: Mentoring is Mainly About Getting Help With Career Choices
One common pitfall in building relationships with mentors is to reach out only when you’re looking for the next career move. It’s difficult for a mentor to guide you on pursuing the next job if they aren’t familiar with what or how you’ve been doing in the current job. Take the time to touch base with your mentors (or prospective mentors) when you or your business hits a milestone or delivers a big success. A quick email can suffice. Equally, when facing a challenge in your current job, a mentor can be objective and invaluable thought partner.

When seeking advice on a business problem, sending a brief background on the issue (no more than 1 page or 1 computer screen worth of information) a few days ahead demonstrates your respect for the other person’s time, and gives them a chance to formulate thoughtful advice.

When it comes time for career move discussions, remember that you, and only you, are ultimately accountable for your career plan and choices. I’ve often had people come to me with different potential next roles, and ask “which one should I take?” To which my reply is inevitably: “Only you can answer that…So talk me through what you are thinking.” Always have your own clear perspective on questions you pose to a mentor. Your mentor may challenge that perspective, but you build respect by sharing your own well-deliberated perspective first.

Also, don’t forget to ask the other person how they are doing. What is new in their world? Can you read ahead about their business and perhaps bring them a data point they may not have? If you focus every mentoring conversation on your career, you leave the impression that you’re only concerned about your career.

And this last piece of advice is from your mom: Send a Thank You note.

Special note to those of you who are asked to be mentors: Some ways to make a difference without killing your calendar:

• Set expectations that work for you (I always ask for topics to be sent ahead of time so I can be thoughtful in the interaction).

• Bring people and groups together around common topics in a great way to amplify impact/connection for everyone involved and be a catalyst for new networking and mentoring relationships.

• Put the question back to the person asking.

• Always be positive and kind, also, always be honest. These things are rarely in conflict.

Author Brené Brown defines Connection as “…The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

Mentoring = Connection + Guidance. The connection part always comes first.

About the author

Teri Lawver

Teri Lawver

Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Global Vice President, Immunology, Global Commercial Strategy Leader

Appointed to this role in 2017, Teri has end-to-end responsibility for Janssen Immunology’s portfolio and pipeline. She has been a leader in transforming the Immunology strategy, accelerating growth and generating revenues over $13B annually through a period of significant market disruption.

Since joining Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in 2002, she has held leadership positions of increasing scope and consistently delivered above-market performance. Prior to joining J&J, Teri was an Associate Principal at McKinsey & Company and a leader in the firm’s healthcare practice. She began her career as a Derivatives Analyst at Bloomberg Financial Markets.

Teri has a track record of shaping innovative strategies, building diverse, high performing teams, and inspiring organizations to deliver sustainable growth and value creation. She has been recognized by NJ Biz as one of New Jersey’s Top 50 Women in Business, and featured in Thrive magazine.

Teri holds a Bachelor of Science degree, summa cum laude, from Georgetown University, and a Masters of Business Administration from Duke University.

Teri serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Episcopal Relief & Development, and on the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She resides in NJ with her husband, two children, and giant rescue dog.

Subscribe to our FREE newsletter