Is a Mentor Relationship Right for Your Next Gen Leader?

A key to any professional development plan is to designate a mentor to assist the successor candidate. The mentor serves as a coach and helps ensure the successor stays on course toward the designated goals. Typically, the mentor serves as a confidant and sounding board for the successor, providing insight and direction when needed. The mentor generally should not dictate the successor’s course of action. Instead, the mentor should facilitate the learning process and help the candidate learn to navigate the roles and responsibilities of a leadership position in the operation.

The mentor should be truly interested in seeing the candidate succeed. Accordingly, it should not be someone who is threatened or adversely impacted by the candidate’s success. The mentor should also be someone with whom the candidate is comfortable sharing his or her concerns or weaknesses. This generally eliminates bosses or someone responsible for supervising the candidate from serving as mentor. Taking these factors into consideration, there are several likely candidates for the next gen’s mentor. You may consider the following potential mentors:

Owner/Parent

Due to their family relationship and knowledge of the business, the owner/parent often expects to be the successor’s mentor. Although they should be used as a source of knowledge and experience for the successor, they are often not the best choice to serve as the successor’s mentor. First, the parent/child relationship may inhibit the successor from asking questions for fear of looking weak or inferior in the parent’s eyes. Second, it is usually important for the successor to develop skills that complement (as opposed to mirror) the owner’s skills. This is not likely to occur if the owner is the successor’s mentor. It is also important for the successor to learn how to operate the business without the owner’s assistance. This may be difficult if the owner is providing advice and counsel in a mentor’s role. Accordingly, owners generally should be discouraged from serving as their child’s mentor.

Key Employee

A key employee may be a logical choice to serve as mentor as long as he or she is not threatened by or competing with the successor. A key employee’s knowledge of the business can be invaluable when providing advice and direction to the successor. Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to using a key employee as the successor’s mentor. For one, the successor may be reluctant to be totally open with the key employee due to the key employee’s real or apparent loyalty to the parent. The successor may fear the key employee will relay his or her weaknesses to the owner. In addition, key employees may lack the experience of running a company. This may make it difficult to convey the leadership skills needed by someone who will take over the business operations. Despite these inherent limitations, many key employees serve as effective mentors for potential successors.

Outside Director, Professional Advisor, or Business Coach

An outside director, professional advisor, or business coach is often a good choice to serve as a successor’s mentor. Lack of direct ties to the company usually eliminates any potential for family or business conflict and helps encourage the successor to draw on the mentor’s expertise and counsel. In addition, as a respected business leader, he or she possesses a wealth of knowledge that can benefit a potential successor. An outside director, professional advisor, or business coach’s experiences may be very different from the owner’s and help the successor to develop complementary skills. Also, an outside director, professional advisor, or business coach will typically have a wide range of contacts to call upon if an issue arises that is beyond their expertise. Thus, directors, advisors, or coaches may be the best mentors for a successor.