Want to get ahead?
You've got to get a mentor.
At least, that's what countless leadership gurus and how-to-succeed-in-business books would have you believe.
But what happens when mentoring goes wrong? We usually only hear the success stories: For example, in his "last lecture," now a bestselling book as well as an actual lecture, computer science professor Randy Pausch speaks movingly about how his mentor, Andy Van Dam, prodded him to become less arrogant and steered him into a brilliant career in academia.
But sometimes the mentor-protégé relationship starts to look less like Mr. Miyagi and Ralph Macchio ("Wax on, wax off"), and more like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader ("Learn to use the dark side of the force").
It's a dirty little secret, but the dark side of mentoring is attracting more attention from academics these days. Experts say business leaders and potential protégés should enter relationships with their eyes wide open to possible problems.
"The biggest problem with seeing it as this life-altering experience is it really sets up expectations that can't be met," says Lillian Eby, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia who recently spoke about "mentoring gone awry" at a conference of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. "I would like people to take a more cautious approach to mentoring."
That would include, for instance, not making mentoring programs mandatory: "Not everyone's cut out to be a mentor and probably not everyone's cut out to be a protégé," Dr. Eby says.
Jeffrey Gandz, a professor of business administration at the Richard Ivey School of Business, says two of the biggest problems he sees are hero-worship and overdependence on a mentor.
Protégés should never get so attached that they can't make decisions without checking in with their mentor, he says. The best tactic is to connect with a few different mentors.
"You want to have multiple sources of mentoring, without being a pest to people," Dr. Gandz says. "You don't want to be the mentoring equivalent of my cocker spaniel - 'Please, please, please, pay attention to me!' "
Other potential hazards of mentoring include jealousy, undermining, over-controlling, favouritism, betrayal, abandonment and plain old personality clashes.
One high-profile example of mentoring gone wrong happened last month, when iconic former General Electric Co. executive Jack Welch publicly criticized his successor and former protégé, current CEO Jeffrey Immelt, after GE missed its earnings target.
"Jeff has a credibility issue. He's getting his ass kicked," Mr. Welch said on CNBC. He backpedalled the next day, calling Mr. Immelt "a hell of a CEO," but the damage to that particular relationship - as well as to Mr. Welch's reputation as a mentor - was done.
At least Mr. Welch stabbed Mr. Immelt in the front. Stories abound of more insidious undermining: the mentor who encourages a protégé to tackle a difficult project, then criticizes him for biting off more than he could chew; the protégé who steals ideas and passes them off as his own.
People don't grow up with natural mentoring relationships the way they used to, says Michelle Fleig-Palmer, a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska who organized the panel on "mentoring gone awry."
When her grandmother worked in the family bakery, for instance, she didn't have to seek out mentoring from her parents and siblings - it just happened. "Today we don't have those opportunities," Ms. Fleig-Palmer notes. Children are less likely to be living in the same town as their parents, much less working alongside them.
Of course, a little emotional distance is healthy in professional mentoring. Dr. Gandz says he's become a better mentor as he ages because he cares less. Not that he doesn't care about the person he's advising, but he's not personally wrapped up in what that person does with his advice.
"They can decide whether it's wisdom or not," Dr. Gandz says. "The next generation faces a very different set of issues, and what was wisdom for me may not be wisdom for them."
He still remembers his own bad mentoring experience, at the beginning of his career in sales, when he was advised by a man who wanted to live vicariously through him.
"I needed to be doing all the things he wished he had done," Dr. Gandz recalled. He ended up not only leaving his mentor, but also the company - which turned out to be a good decision.
"If that's what this business was about, then I didn't want to be here," he determined. "It was kind of depressing, but hey, you move on."
The bad and the ugly
Mentoring is great when it works, but can turn ugly when it goes wrong. In his 2006 book, On Being a Mentor, W. Brad Johnson identified some of the common hazards of the mentor-protégé relationship:
Black halo phenomenon: A mentor falls out of favour with the powers-that-be, and the protégé is tarnished by association; or a protégé has some high-profile failure and a mentor is blamed.
Favouritism: Co-workers believe that a mentor is playing favourites, and resent the protégé.
Reluctant psychotherapist: The protégé becomes emotionally
dependent on the mentor, requiring her to assume the role of therapist.
Thievery: The protégé steals ideas from the mentor, or the mentor "borrows" from the
protégé's work without proper credit.
Betrayal: The protégé spreads gossip or lies about the mentor, or vice versa.
A brief history
Mentoring has been a mixed bag from the start. In Homer's The Odyssey, Ulysses leaves a friend called Mentor in charge of his house while he goes off to fight the Trojan War. That doesn't work out so well, as Ulysses' home is overrun by suitors. Mentor doesn't become useful until Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, assumes his form and guides Ulysses' son, Telemachus, in his search for his father.