Garrett Mintz: How mentors can help leaders continue to grow

Garrett MintzHow much confidence should you have in your own leadership abilities?

That might seem like an odd question, but try entertaining it for the moment. Now think of a leader you respect. On a scale of 1-100, where do you think that leader would put her or his leadership abilities?

I find this question fascinating because there is no perfect answer.

If you rate yourself too high, you might seem naive. How could any great leader believe he or she has achieved the pinnacle of leadership?

Consider an ESPN interview with LeBron James. As he is retelling the story of winning the NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he pauses in the middle and proclaims himself the greatest basketball player ever.

But does merely proclaiming yourself the best at anything mean you actually are the greatest of all time?

On the other hand, if leaders rate themselves too low—for example, they don’t have the confidence to take a shot—others might question their competence.

So, with those extreme cases in mind, what is the optimal score?

At Ambition In Motion, we have started to study this area in our Executive Horizontal Mentorship program. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

One measure is a 360-degree assessment in which we compare leaders’ self-ratings to how their colleagues rate their performance across several categories. Seventy percent of executives rated themselves lower at specific skills than did their colleagues.

On a scale of 1-100, executives gave themselves an average rating of 59.7.

The categories measured in the 360-degree assessment are people management, leadership ability, innovation, communication skills and financial management. Of those, leaders gave themselves the lowest scores for leadership ability. That’s also the category in which executives were most likely to rate themselves worse than their colleagues did.

Let’s focus on the before-and-after snapshot of what changed after having what’s called an executive horizontal mentor, which means a relationship with someone in a similar position of power in which learning goes both ways.

After six months in that type of relationship, executives in our program gave themselves an average 75/100 score for their leadership abilities. That’s a 15.3% increase per person.

How could attitudes have changed so much? Here are three observations:

 The type of executive interested in horizontal mentorship

I have spoken with hundreds of executives about participating in our executive horizontal mentorship program. The majority of those conversations don’t end up with them signing up for the program—maybe because they don’t have the time, or don’t believe in investing money into a relationship like this, or they already have colleagues they go to for guidance.

The types of executives interested in horizontal mentorship realize they have a gap between where they are and where they want to be. They choose to say yes because they are at a position in life in which they can be vulnerable enough to recognize they want help and humble enough to know their personal status quo simply isn’t cutting it anymore.

The executive mentor helps fill that gap and gives them the confidence to make decisions and even change directions. That leads to the next point.

 The power of learning what you don’t know

One of the biggest insights an executive seeks from a horizontal mentor is an outside perspective. As leaders, we are often surrounded by a silo of people we have grown comfortable with.

Leaders in our executive horizontal mentorship program recognize that the only way for them to grow is to get out of their comfort zone and build new, deep, intentional mentor relationships.

Before joining the program, their consciousness of this fact played a role in their low self-score. The knowledge they gained, learning how to know what you don’t know, gave them the confidence and insight to know they are moving in a positive direction.

But part of that learning comes with being challenged, which leads to the next point.

 The value of objectivity

Objectivity is the single most important contributor to an executive’s making big strides in his or her leadership ability. Having a fellow executive who can share insights and a perspective built from experience will save you immeasurable time and frustration.

Being challenged is part of receiving that objectivity. It isn’t comfortable at first, and it is easy to get defensive immediately. But, after reflection and contemplation, these insights and passed-on knowledge can be the most powerful tools for leaders to improve their abilities.

Mentors make leaders better by mining the vulnerability and humility they share and turning that into knowledge, confidence and grit. The process isn’t easy—the more uncomfortable you are, the more painful it is—but with pain comes growth.•


Mintz is founder of Ambition in Motion, a Bloomington-based firm that helps companies increase employee engagement and collaboration by implementing corporate mentor programs.

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