I’ll never forget one particular conversation I had with a marketing mentor I worked with early in my career. She pulled me aside, advising me that certain reactions and behaviors in client interactions or team meetings were counterproductive. Testing her theories—trying to respond differently or present ideas in new ways—quickly helped me understand how to build consensus, convey competence, and be seen as a leader.
The practice of mentorship is a tough subject for many managers and employees. Today’s career paths are rarely linear—especially in marketing. Workloads are heavy, leaving little time for managers to develop their staff. People often change jobs frequently, and it can be challenging to build relationships where others are excited to invest in your career. Yet every employee is looking for a mentor—or should be—and every manager likes to envision himself guiding employees toward their next opportunity.
For marketing leaders, what’s the true role of the marketing mentor? And how can you shape a team’s career development at scale?
Over dinner one night, I listened to a Fortune 1000 CMO discuss some challenges she had with her team of directors. They were smart, creative, and knew the business, but many of them had stepped into leadership roles without formal training, or were overwhelmed with managing teams.
“Going from individual contributor to director level is a rough transition,” I said. “What kind of mentoring are they getting?”
She started listing off the expensive training that the company provided: attendance at industry events, meetings with the best creative minds to stay on the cutting edge of techniques, access to publications, meetings, and creative training.
“How about individual coaching? Insights on soft skills, management, and the areas they’re struggling with?”
The CMO then admitted that while she tried to meet monthly with each direct report, those meetings were often postponed due to heavy workloads or relegated to a phone call because of client travel. Very little support or guidance was being given to help develop these directors as managers—which were new roles for them and where they were struggling.
As an outside consultant, I was left asking my tough questions here. Was this CMO unusually busy? Was her team more difficult than the standard? Was she simply a visionary who didn’t like overseeing team development?
Digging deeper, it quickly became clear that none of these things were true. Her team was composed of smart, engaged, and capable people who simply needed mentoring. She was very busy, but was also doing her best to regularly touch base with her team. However, she lacked a real understanding of mentorship. A quick look at the data shows that this is an incredibly common situation.
Marketing Week recently identified a mentorship gap in the marketing field. They highlighted research that showed “33% of men surveyed have a mentor compared to 28% of women.” Even beyond the gender gap, it’s pretty dismal that only one-third of employees felt that they had a mentor at all. When you come around to the other perspective, the manager perspective, there’s another gap. Many leaders don’t understand what mentorship is, don’t prioritize it, or think they’re good at it when they actually are not.
Image attribution: Fredrick Kearney Jr
Harvard Business Review recently published a fantastic article titled “Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn.” The author of the piece asks managers, “Are you successful at coaching your employees? In our years studying and working with companies on this topic, we’ve observed that when many executives say ‘yes,’ they’re ill-equipped to answer the question. Why? For one thing, managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.”
In other words, training is great, but mentoring—especially the kind of mentoring that moves the lever on a career or takes department performance up a notch—is a whole different animal.
Let’s start by defining what mentoring is not. The HBR article mentioned above references a study where participants were told to coach a colleague on time management. Sessions lasted five minutes, and the vast majority of the mentors simply told their mentee basic tips.
In contrast, HBR defined the following qualities as important in effective coaching or mentoring:
See how that varies from a simple to-do list? It’s not about forcing someone to go in a direction that you see as right. Instead, it’s about looking at your employee and understanding what’s on their mind, what’s driving those thoughts, and helping guide them toward possible solutions.
If you’re realizing that you need a higher level of mentorship in your marketing department, the good news is that you can take concrete steps to improve the situation.
If the Harvard Business Review studies reveal one thing, it’s this: Mentorship doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s a unique form of management behavior. Training—even a short training—on what mentorship looks like, how best to do it, and where it fits into the management mix—is critical. There are times you need to lead, times you need to closely manage delivery, and times you need to coach your team. Some people are naturally better mentors than others, but all team leaders can improve their mentorship prowess by taking these initial steps.
Recently, a good friend of mine began working for a powerful woman she greatly admired. Her hope was that this woman, who was incredibly busy and focused on a variety of causes, would become her mentor.
When her desire for mentorship wasn’t happening the way she had hoped, I didn’t want my friend’s opportunity to engage with this leader to pass. I asked how it was going at her new position, and my friend responded, “She hasn’t made any overtures. I guess she doesn’t see anything worth mentoring.”
In that moment, one of the most amazing people I know had fallen into a mindset that I myself have experienced—and one that I think is all too common. It’s what I think of as the “Choose Me” or “Fairy Godmother” model of mentoring.
The idea’s pretty straightforward. It goes something like this: Someone will come along and see our natural talent, creativity, virtue, or whatever form of cultural capital we think we’re trading on, and decide to bestow us with their wisdom, insight, and friendship. While this can be the case from time to time, the reality is that the person you are waiting on to notice you is mired in their own commitments.
Returning to my friend’s problem, we mapped out a strategy for how she could approach this leader and ask for some of her time. We set quick goals for the kind of insights that she’d like to get and how to maximize value without overtaxing resources. Since she was trying to connect with someone who understood good mentoring, she was able to form a valuable relationship that’s helped her change positions, get into grad school, and build a real connection with a pioneer in her field.
Within the context of organizational mentorship, this can matter somewhat less. But your training of employees should make it clear to them that they can ask for help, that they’re worthy of mentorship, and that there are specific strategies to tap into these networks. This, combined with training your managers and leaders on what real mentorship looks like, can help move the needle forward.
Image attribution: Matheus Ferrero
Sometimes people have a single mentor, but realistically, our careers—and lives—are touched by many different people. As an organization, embrace the idea that your employees need access to different insights. Encouraging managers to provide mentoring to their teams is a smart idea. Developing programs that connect junior marketers with senior resources can diversify those relationships. Cross-departmental mentoring programs can help with knowledge sharing, cross-pollination, and bringing the power of different ideas to the table to help solve problems.
As Harvard Business Review notes, seeking multiple mentors can take the pressure off finding one specific person to shape your career—or help employees in busy departments be more realistic about taking advantage of what’s at their fingertips: “The chief distinction between finding ‘a mentor’ and creating ‘a mentor board of directors’ is that there is less pressure to find one person who represents your ideal future self. You can diversify your search criteria and learn from a variety of people. This also allows you to look beyond the classic notion of a mentor as someone who is older and wiser than you.”
Get practical about making mentorship work. Mentorship is a lot like innovation—companies talk about making it a priority, but don’t necessarily dedicate the time and space for making it happen.
The bottom line is that everyone needs mentors. There’s a gap in marketing—and other fields—because of the way businesses operate, our corporate cultural evolution, and the pace of our lives. Individual marketers and organizations can overcome those challenges by making a commitment to helping with career development, seeking out marketing mentors, and learning best practices. The reality is that there’s not a paint-by-numbers set of recommendations that will make your mentorship activities a success. But taking an active interest in mentorship and ensuring that it’s part of what you’re investing in will pay dividends in your team’s overall performance.
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Featured image attribution: Mimi Thian