Outgrowing A Mentor: Navigating The Delicate Business Of Moving On

By Jenniffer Weigel
Chicago Tribune.

Mentors can be lifesavers, until they’re not anymore.

When you outgrow mentors, surpass them in their skills or simply establish your own level of sufficiency and independence to function as their equal, breaking up can be hard to do.

Clinical psychologist Patricia O’Gorman, author of “The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power” (HCI), said detaching from a mentor can be a heart-wrenching experience.

“People, especially women, will tear themselves apart rather than comfortably end something that is not working for them,” she said.

One way to embrace the process is to realize that outgrowing your mentor or teacher is a sign that you’re making progress.

“We don’t have to be bound by loyalty in every relationship, especially when we’ve accomplished what we need to accomplish,” O’Gorman said. “Being excited about your next steps does not mean you are being disloyal.”

Sometimes, though, it’s about being afraid to abandon the safety net.

“Just like in love relationships, oftentimes people stay in these relationships too long after they aren’t productive because you don’t want to lose what you have,” said life coach Judith Wright, co-author of “Transformed: The Science of Spectacular Living” (Turner). “I don’t care if it’s a piano teacher, a life coach or a business mentor; it’s someone who has been important to you and someone you’ve trusted, and that’s what makes it difficult to leave that relationship. But if you don’t move on, you won’t continue to grow.”

This can be especially challenging, of course, when a mentor doesn’t recognize that the relationship has run its course. Some advice for moving on.

The reasons don’t have to reflect difficulties in the relationship; sometimes it’s just a matter of seeing that your mentor can’t take you to the next level or guide you in a new direction you need to explore.

But noticing problematic shifts in the relationship can be a sign it’s time for new guidance, said Julia Tang Peters, author of “Pivot Points: Five Decisions Every Successful Leader Must Make” (Wiley).

“The whole idea of a mentor is to have someone you look up to, someone you admire and respect,” Tang Peters said. “When you feel you can’t give voice to your problems or have a constructive conversation, this could be a sign it’s no longer the right fit.”

The success of a student or protege can also pose a threat to a mentor or teacher who is not grounded or secure in his or her own position, said Tang Peters.

“When the mentor sees that the ‘mentee’ has that something, drive, talent or boldness, that they see themselves lacking in their own life, they could be envious and jealous, which is never a productive emotion in a relationship,” Tang Peters said. “If their advice is negative and they’re undermining rather than supporting you, I would have a conversation with that person.”

Gillian Zoe Segal, author of “Getting There: A Book of Mentors” (Abrams Image, due out in April), said mentors should be honest about whether they can help you achieve your goals.

“The best kind of a mentor is someone who is willing to be completely candid and open about whether they think they can help you grow,” Segal said.

So don’t assume that your decision will be met with animosity.

“A good mentor really wants the people they’re mentoring to outdo them and to grow and prosper,” Wright said. “In the same way that you want your children to grow, this should be a natural point of mentoring.”

Wright suggested starting the breakup process by having a heartfelt dialogue with your teacher or mentor, focusing on what you’ve learned.

“Acknowledge all that the relationship has given you, and tell them what they’ve done to lead to your success,” she said. “Show your gratitude, and then show them where you want to go next and see how they respond. If the mentor or teacher is on top of it, they can say, ‘Look, you’re outgrowing me. I’ve taken this as far as I can, and I don’t want to hold you back.'”

If you encounter resistance or hostility, Tang Peters said, it’s important to take the high road.

“You always want to try to handle a situation in a way that you are not totally burning bridges,” she said. “You never know how it’s going to come back to you. I always advise, no matter how bad it may seem to you in the moment, try to handle it in a way that is not (overly emotional). Decisions made from negative (emotions) are hasty, aren’t productive, and one can look back at those as unfinished business. Better to handle these situations in a respectful, polite, rational way.”

Truly supportive mentors will not only give their blessing when you decide to move on, but many will also suggest a replacement, Wright said.

“You could ask your mentor who they would recommend for you, based on where you want to go,” Wright said. “For instance, if a piano teacher sees that you (have become) very skilled, they might know of someone who could be a better fit. If you’re a really good coach, you’d be thrilled your team member is building their skill level.”

If your mentor is unwilling or unable to suggest someone, technology can provide a virtual mentor or tutorial, Segal said.

“You have so much access to mentors and experts online via reading about them, listening to speeches they’ve given or TED Talks (online conferences and speeches offered by the Sapling Foundation),” she said. “If someone hasn’t found the right mentor or finds themselves needing more, we’re living in a good time for reaching out to just about anyone through the Internet or social media.”
Segal said to consider adding more than one mentor.

“Warren Buffett calls them his ‘heroes,’ not necessarily mentors, but different people who bring different aspects to his life as he changes and grows,” she said. “You don’t need just one, because you may need different mentors for different departments.”

For this new chapter to get off on the right foot, O’Gorman said, be your own advocate and resist the urge to be a caretaker for others: “Say, ‘I am worth it. I can thank this person. I can enjoy the role they’ve had in my life. And I’m taking care of my needs by moving on.'”

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