7 traits you need to be a good CEO mentor
Do CEOs need mentors? The quick answer: Oh yeah, they do!
Here’s one proof point: When Harvard Business Review surveyed chief executives with formal mentoring arrangements, 71% said company performance improved, 76% said they were better able to fulfill stakeholder expectations, and 84% said they more rapidly achieved proficiency in their roles.
Clearly, mentoring is a high-impact proposition.
Who can coach an organization’s top leader, though?
Given the nature of the job, CEOs typically look outside the business for a mentor, often scouring the ranks of retired and semi-retired executives for the right fit.
Not just any former C-suiter can become a good mentor, however. What traits make the difference? Two individuals experienced in mentoring weigh in on what it really takes to be effective.
1. The heart of a servant leader
Ask longtime coach and Vistage Chair Marty Stowe about the most important trait a mentor should possess and he has an immediate answer. “The heart of a servant leader,” he says, “because being a mentor is something you do for bigger reasons than yourself.”
To Stowe, that means attending not to his own plans for a mentoring relationship, but rather responding to what most concerns the CEO he’s working with. “You’ve got to figure out what they want to improve upon. Sometimes it’s not what you think. Sometimes it’s not even business.”
He says that many CEOs seek a mentor’s help with personal matters, such as how to be a caring spouse or an involved parent. To be of service, the mentor must allow sessions to go wherever the mentee needs them to go.
2. Words of encouragement
Shaun Bradley has been a U.S. Navy officer, CEO of a nationwide recruiting company, and coach for over 60 youth sports teams. Always an inspiring leader and now a CEO mentor, Bradley hones in on another key mentoring trait: the ability to increase someone else’s confidence.
As he puts it, “The greatest gift you can give people is to believe in them. If you believe in people, they will do amazing things.”
One might assume that CEOs have plenty of self-assurance, but that’s not usually the case, according to Stowe. “What’s the biggest surprise for me in dealing with all these powerful and very successful CEOs? About 80% of them believe they’re imposters.”
Sometimes, a mentor needs to do little more than help counter basic insecurities.
3. An ear for story
The right heart and true belief in the CEO mentee are good starting places, but what actually happens in mentoring conversations frequently boils down to one thing. “Stories. Stories. Stories. Stories.” Bradley repeats for emphasis. “We learn by stories. We’re a storytelling and story-hearing species.”
For decades, Bradley has been drawing on this human propensity to derive meaning from a narrative. When working as a talent recruiter, for example, he wouldn’t ask candidates to rehash their résumé.
Instead, he’d offer individuals the chance to tell their stories. He says that he consistently gleaned much more useful and truthful insight this way.
Today, Bradley takes the same approach in mentoring relationships, always asking “Is there something in my background that connects with their background?” and then building from that foundation.
4. An inquisitive mind
Asking for a mentee’s story may be the first question in a mentoring relationship but it shouldn’t be the last. In fact, Stowe believes that how questions are handled sets mentors apart from other types of advisors.
“Consultants answer your questions,” he says, “but mentors question your answers.”
That’s where emotional intelligence often comes into play as well.
“It takes EQ to know when a person is being honest with you and when they’re giving you an answer just to give you an answer. It also takes EQ to know when to push,” Bradley explains.
How can you tell? “Pay attention and listen to their eyes.”
5. Behaviors worth adopting
Although a mentor exists to serve the mentee, there’s no escaping the fact that they are also, in many respects, a role model.
Bradley reflects, “I had a great boss in the Navy, he later became an admiral. And the boss at my first job out of the Navy. A lot of things they did, I did — I’ve copied them my whole life.”
Mentors must, therefore, act with intention and select the stories they share carefully. But Bradley highlights that seeing oneself in the other is also a two-way street.
“The mentee will, in an ideal scenario, view the mentor as somebody they want to be,” he says. At the same time, “the mentor ideally sees in the mentee somebody who was like them long ago.” This mirroring fosters empathy, another critical component of the mentoring relationship.
6. A willingness to be vulnerable
It’s great when the mentee admires the mentor, but effort is frequently required to ensure both sides remain on equal footing.
“The more the leader opens up, the better the mentoring,” Bradley opines. “Then the mentee is not going to be intimidated or uncomfortable sharing things.”
Stowe concurs. “The reason you have to be vulnerable is that a lot of times when the protégé looks up to a mentor, they might say ‘this person has all the answers.’ You have to be vulnerable to show that you’ve been there, too, that we are not perfect creatures.”
Stowe’s rule of thumb for aspiring CEO mentors. “Your protégé or your mentee will only be as authentic and vulnerable as you are.”
7. A lifelong commitment
“I’ll be honest with you, most of what I do is just conversation,” Bradley admits. “The secret sauce is the personal relationship.”
The personal relationship between a mentor and a mentee is something special, though. Bradley remains in contact with a high school basketball coach and a mentor from his Navy days. “A good mentor relationship is a lifelong relationship,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why both Bradley and Stowe react the same way when they’re asked to mentor.
“A mentor should feel like it’s an honor that this person thinks I might be able to help them,” says Bradley. “When people would ask me to mentor, I was honored,” Stowe agrees.
Fortunately, there are plentiful opportunities to accept the honor of becoming a mentor. “Just look around. People are crying for this,” Bradley says. “People are crying for somebody to believe in them.”
And that heartfelt belief in the unique greatness revealed in another person — that may be a mentor’s most important trait.