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We are not who we say we are. Rather we are who others say we are. Your reflection in the eyes of those who have come to know you is always more accurate than the image you strive to put there.
This is a tale of three clients. The details are an accurate reflection of each. The names and some of the circumstances have been changed to protect their identity. Or, better said, to keep others from realizing who they are. We are, after all, more than occasionally each of these characters. Sometimes to our benefit and, at other times, to our loss. This journey is better made less wondering who these people are and more thinking about how we can learn from their examples.
Sisyphus, a king of Corinth, conspired to escape from the underworld. He failed and was punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.
I’m sure you’ve all heard what they say about Chinese food. “You eat until you are full then, an hour later, you are hungry.” In the first article in this series, I described a coaching client whose tendencies prevented him from engaging in a learning relationship. A combination of aversions and hubris kept him from engaging in any relationship which involved learning or change. This person’s efforts to change were doomed from the start. Now I would like to turn to a different type of client. One who can engage in such relationships but cannot seem to derive cumulative benefits from them.
Freda was such a mentoring client. During the initial interview I asked her about experiences with mentoring and mentors. What followed was an extended description of almost a decade of engagements. Some lasted just a few months but two went for over a year each.
This kind of tale is one that immediately raises a red flag for two reasons. The first is that the potential client has likely become inured to the mentoring process in a way that will make progress much more difficult. The second is that, unless I assume that prior mentors have been completely ineffective, the person that I am talking to is the result of intensive and repetitive coaching.
Freda fell into this pattern. She had begun to seek out and engage mentors shortly after she graduated with an MBA from a first-line business school. I suspected almost immediately that her interest in being mentored by me had something to do with my MMS from the Sloan School at MIT and PhD in political and social theory. As she described the series of mentoring engagements and mentors, a pattern began to emerge. Freda’s side of the story was that she stayed with a mentor as long as she felt she had something to learn from them. Then, having harvested what there was to harvest, she moved on in search of a “greater guru”.
The interview brought up three interesting questions. One, how much did Freda really get out of each mentoring engagement? Two, what was the difference between her vision of each engagement and that of the mentor involved? And three, how did Freda measure up to someone who had had so much mentoring support? With those questions in mind, I ended the interview with a promise to get back to her in a couple of days.
Because Freda was local and I knew two of her prior mentors, I decided to start with the second question. I contacted the two mentors and arranged to have a confidential chat with each. A pattern quickly emerged. Here is what one of them said:
Freda’s problem is that almost her entire life is between her ears. Everything we worked on was turned into an intellectual exercise. I had trouble getting her to focus on the fact that we were talking about Freda, the real person facing real challenges.”
A second part of the puzzle came out when one of them observed:
“Freda is addicted to being mentored. Her social life is fairly sparse. Most of it revolves around going to networking meetings. She likes to disclose that she is being mentored. It makes her feel special.”
To Engage of Not to Engage – That Is the Question
Since I prefer not to waste my time with mentoring efforts, I realized that the ground rules of the engagement, if they were achievable and enforceable, would be a key issue. I mentor for two reasons. First, it keeps me fresh by bringing me in contact with basic challenges on a regular basis. Second, I get a great deal out of helping people overcome limitations and break out towards new horizons. As a result, I choose my mentoring clients very carefully. I am not a fan of kamikaze raids on vacant lots and have no interest in emulating Sisyphus.
Freda, on the other hand, seemed to embody the Sisyphusian dilemma. True, she had engaged a series of mentors. But the net result seemed to be that Freda had spent over a decade working on the same challenges without ever overcoming them. I concluded that there were two primary reasons why that might be the case. The first came from a prior mentor. Highly intelligent, well educated people can suffer from a well-developed capacity to intellectualize almost any part of their life. They turn the most personal of challenges into an intellectual discussion. The result is that the topic is defanged; made far less threatening. Of course, the other side of that coin is that there is far less of a chance that anything positive in terms of behavior change will come out of the exercise.
The second reason was that, by now, being mentored had become part of Freda’s self-image. She was “someone who was mentored”. She was “someone who was trying to improve herself.” Remember the first reason. Freda’s statements were only the truth as she was telling herself they were.
Dissolutioned With Delusions?
So let’s start with an interesting observation by John Nash, a real person, with a real life hard lived. He is the principal character in a movie titled A Beautiful Mind. During an interview about his life, he was asked how he, unaided, emerged from schizophrenia; a journey that was considered almost impossible by most psychiatrists. He replied:
"I became disillusioned by the delusions."
This single statement held the core concept for my next discussion with Freda. Either she was ready to directly confront the tendencies that were holding her back (my preference, of course) or she was looking to go around the same circle again (something that did not interest me in the least). Professional mentors might have taken her money and went along for a predictable but low impact ride. I would not.
Because I anticipated fireworks, we held our second meeting in a public venue; a coffee shop with an owner who knows me well. The conversation started out pleasantly enough. Freda was clearly interested in hearing that I had decided to coach her. But things began to get crunchy when I described my reservations. They got tense when I disclosed that I had talked to two of her prior mentors. To her, it was a betrayal on their part and an over-stepping on mine. It was time to turn towards the line.
“Cut the crap Freda. You are either interested in overcoming and breaking out or you just want to run in the same senseless, if self-gratifying, circles. If you want the former, I can help. If the later, I have no interest. Don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours. Decide. If I work with you, it will be very painful for a while. I’ll not let up or let you slide. You will have to come to the line as an adult. No more of this intellectualized garbage. We will be working on your life, your future and your challenges. If you haven’t the guts for that, I can recommend a nice, soft mentor that will take your money for as long as possible.”
It took Freda a few minutes to digest. Clearly she had expected that I was coveting the mentoring fee and that I would make whatever deal with her that was necessary to obtain it. Now she really had to decide.
Freda’s decision did not come during our second meeting. She decided to take some time off and think things through. It was two weeks later that I next talked to her.
“You scared the crap out of me, Chief. No one had ever talked to me that way. I could always fend off and turn the discussion towards a more comfortable tenor. I don’t like being challenged that way. The truth is that I expected you to be nice and solicitous. But you are right about how I have approached being mentored. I went through all of my notes from all the engagement; over a decade of them. You know, I would work with a mentor until they got frustrated with the lack of progress and pressed. I would decide that I had learned all that I could – at the very time when I might actually start learning – and moved on in search of a new mentor. Let’s talk.”
The third meeting was different. Freda came to work and convinced me that she was serious. Even then, I insisted on a six month initial engagement rather than my normal twelve. The first three months were incredibly hard, even explosive, work but Freda kept at it. Slowly at first then more rapidly her vision of herself, those around her and the world at large began to change. Her aversion tendencies began to dissipate. She found it easier to have an open and honest conversation about herself. Instead of moving the flatware around on the table, Freda began to make real changes. She enjoyed people more. Developed a more active social life. Discovered a whole range of non-business interests. Her professional life started to blossom. It was rough going at first but the experience, scars and all, was worth the effort. I mean for me, of course. There is a lot of fun in reaping the things you sow.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, NPI Team Lead,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,