When Sheryl Sandberg was first offered a position as an executive at Google, her mentor advised her to turn it down. She took the job.
Several years later, she was recruited by Mark Zuckerberg to become Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer. Again a mentor advised her to turn it down, and again she took the job. The 44-year-old mother of two is now worth over $US1 billion, thanks to her roles at Google and Facebook.
Sandberg’s story, recounted by Stanford University professor
Bob Sutton in a recent post on LinkedIn, isn’t a cautionary tale about the evils of mentorship. On the contrary, Sandberg has been a strong proponent of mentorship and sponsorship at all stages of your career, and regularly credits her own mentors as being critical to her professional and financial success.
Rather, Sutton tells Sandberg’s story to demonstrate the fallacy of assuming a mentor isn’t operating on their own ulterior motives or always knows what’s best for you. “Even if you have the best of mentors,” Sutton writes, “that does not relieve you of the task of figuring out your own best course of action. Mentees have to play an active role in judging the advice they get.”
Sutton describes several situations in which you should think long and hard before accepting your mentor’s advice. We’ve outlined three here:
1. You’re taking a different path than your mentor did. “Piles of research on ‘social similarity’ or ‘similarity attraction’ effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own,” Sutton writes. If you take a wildly different path, however, you’ll likely meet resistance. Examine the reasons behind what your mentor is saying to determine whether they’re thinking about what’s good for you or what was once good for them.
2. You have different appetites for risk. “If you are more comfortable with risk than your mentor, he or she may caution you against that crazy new startup or bold new project,” Sutton says. But don’t discount their advice out of hand; try to be as objective as possible and figure out if they’re being overly cautious or if your plan has serious structural problems you haven’t considered.
3. Your mentor doesn’t have experience in the business you’re working in. “Just because someone is older and more experienced than you are does not mean that they know more about the particular decision you are making,” Sutton cautions. “The more distant they are from the work you do and the business you work in, the more wary you should be.”
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