“There’s no success without successors.”

An old catchphrase that simply means as you climb the ladder of success, it’s a lot easier on the next rung if you’ve groomed someone to take your place in the organization’s leadership hierarchy.

That could be great, but it could also be terrible. It all depends on how you lead and mentor your team and the role you play(ed) in succession planning.

Leaders who care about helping others be successful appreciate those who care for others. Butt snorkelers appreciate butt snorkelers.

Unfamiliar with the term? Butt snorkelers take brown nosing to the next level of kissing ass. They’re the ass-kissers who always side with the boss and will throw a coworker under the bus without thinking twice. Most of us, especially those with military experience, have worked with at least one, and frankly they make my skin crawl.

Okay, this isn’t about butt snorkelers, although that might be a fun topic to spend your next three minutes reading about.

So how do you prepare the next person to take your position? What is the difference between mentoring and leading, and why should you care?

We’ve said it many times, but as the boss, leading by example isn’t a choice… everyone’s always watching, so your only choice is whether to be a good example or a bad one. I had lots of different bosses early in my career; some were good leaders, and some were absolute nightmares. And so it was I was blessed to finally have a boss who was more than a good leader. He demonstrated it the day he said to me, “Kevin, I’m not trying to change who you are, but dammit, you don’t have to you SO HARD all the time.” (Thanks again, Mike.)

What differentiated him from being a good leader to all the Airmen in the unit and a great mentor to me and others was his desire to make the organization even better in the future without him at the helm.

Mentoring takes leading to the next level. A leader develops her team for the benefit of the organization and for the individuals’ growth and advancement. A mentor selects individuals based on knowledge gained from leading and developing them with a longer view of how they could be important members of the senior leadership team in the future. Leading individuals typically lasts only as long as the employer-employee relationship exists; bosses come and go as do team members. A mentor-mentee relationship could span decades and isn’t limited by a common workplace.

While preparing one of your team members to take over your responsibilities in your absence – and it would be close to negligence if you didn’t – don’t assume it should be someone who always gives the answers you’re looking for. Mentoring one of your team members goes far beyond preparing them to do a particular job… you want to identify the people who care more about organizational success than they do their own and prepare them to be willing to step into any role that will make the organization better. If that’s not already part of your leadership repertoire, it might be time to rethink that.

Stepping up the leadership game to effective mentorship requires a more intimate – not too intimate, please – relationship with the mentee. It needs to be an intentional effort about gift discernment, using examples from daily life and work as coaching examples of how to handle different situations, setting personal development goals, and even future career planning. While the military has made the term “whole person” almost infamous, mentorship should indeed delve into the individual’s work-, family-, community-, and self-related goals to prepare them well beyond their next job.

So, here’s a few tips on making the mentor-mentee relationship work:

  • Be present. This is not a time to multi-task.
  • Don’t feel like you need to give a continual stream of advice.
  • Create a safe space. No Judgy McJudgeface. You both have to feel free to be honest and open.
  • Be truthful. I’m not saying use the truth like a club, but you have to be able to share the honest, unvarnished truth.
  • Share personal experiences. We’ve often learned from our mistakes; give them the opportunity to learn vicariously.
  • Keep confidences. Violating this trust will destroy the relationship.

Mentoring isn’t for everyone. Some leaders lack the humility to share personal stories of failures and mistakes, choosing success stories and arrogance instead. Some leaders can’t spare the extra time a commitment to mentorship takes. Some leaders are uncomfortable with the level of trust and transparency it takes. I suffered from all of those at first, but when I look back over the decades, I now only measure career success in terms of the people I’ve mentored as they worked to be successes in their own right.

As I said, the mentor-mentee relationship can be a long-standing and trusted one – one that can easily grow into a collaborative effort, a partnership, or maybe even a lifetime friendship. While not always butterflies and rainbows, it could be one (or many) of the most rewarding relationships you’ll ever have.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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