A difficult mentoring question

Okay, people, I have a short post today. Why? Because I’m stumped. Recently I read this mentoring post by Alison at Ask a Manager. An excerpt is below.

Do we seek out those with star potential because they’ll benefit the most from our help — or is it possible that it’s actually less about that and more because we like to see ourselves in them, or that it’s so gratifying to watch them blossom and feel we played a role in their success? Maybe we’d actually have a more significant impact if we made that kind of time investment with someone who doesn’t have obvious star potential, someone who doesn’t appear to be a natural candidate for grooming.

Basically, should you spend your limited time mentoring someone who is a high performer or someone who is a low performer?

I can make an argument for each side, and I have talked with half a dozen HR pros while seeking an answer. There have been mixed results, to say the least, and I’m stumped. Therefore, I shall turn the question over to my incredibly intelligent audience. What do you think? Should you spend your limited time mentoring someone who is a high performer or someone who is a low performer? The best responses will be published in an upcoming post that will feature comments by some HR bloggers you know and love.

Image by Pierre-Olivier

6 thoughts on “A difficult mentoring question

  1. Paul Hebert

    Great question Ben. My own experience as a manager has been to focus on the those that perform better but with some caveats…

    As a manager your goal it to achieve your team’s objectives through the people on the team. All team members should be contributing, using their particular skills. As a manager you’re supposed to make those decisions – how best to leverage the resources to achieve that goal. If you have a poor performer – the first thing you do is find out why and correct that – is it training, communication, etc.

    But here’s the big “BUT” – you can’t do that to the exclusion of spending time and energy with your top performers. People like to be validated and recognized for their work. If you spend ALL your time with the poor performers your top performers will naturally see that you’re not spending time with them and start to adjust their behavior to get more time with you – and in many, many cases, they will stop being top performers because they (consciously, or unconsciously) think the way to get your time and attention is to be someone who needs help. After all, the evidence you present is – if you need help – I’ll work with you – if you don’t – I’ll ignore you.

    I know it sounds simplistic but like children who behave versus children that don’t. If all your attention is on the poor behaving children the good behaving children will change their behavior to get more of your attention.

    The other response to spending too much time with the “problem” child is that the top performer will leave to go where they get the attention for being a top performer. As a manager you lose either way when you focus too much on the bottom of your talent pool versus the top.

  2. Lois Melbourne

    I believe you should mentor those that want to improve. If a low performer wants to get better, then they are worth your time. They may just be in the wrong role. If the high performer thinks they are already at their pinnacle – then why waste your time on someone not willing to put the effort in to improve.

    It is very different energy to mentor within these various options. Those that want to improve, will feed energy back to you in the process.

    Paul has great points. Marcus Buckingham work positions it well too.

  3. Ben Post author

    @Paul Wow. Awesome comment. I have some of those same thoughts, and I’m looking forward to including your comment in the upcoming post. Great job, my friend.

    @Lois I should have been a bit more clear, but I didn’t want to steer everyone toward an answer I wanted to hear. :-) I am assuming that both the high and low WANT to be mentored, but you only have time for one at a time. But I definitely agree about feeding energy back into the process. It should be a fun experience for both people!

  4. adowling

    I’m going to be the first to say the low performer, assuming they have the potential to be a high performer. If the low performer is content being low performer, well you know what to do with them.
    If the low performer is simply having trouble wrapping their brain around the concept of the task at hand, focus your attention there. That said, if you’re the manager doing the mentoring dont forget about the high performer and leave them twisting in the wind. The goal is to get the low performer to where the high performer currently is and them develop both to great performers.

    For me, it all comes down to the circumstances surrounding the reasons behind the low performers low performance.

  5. Debbie Brown

    There is a difference between mentoring and coaching- I believe as a manager- you coach (develop) the middle group- the “core” into hi performing range or determine they are low, and have a plan around that-

    For mentoring, I believe there is a different context. There is a two way street where both parties agree on what they are seeking to get out of the relationship- it would be unlikely for me to enter a mentoring relationship with a chronic low performer. In a successful mentoring relationship the burden is on the mentee- to seek what they want to get out of it and pursue these relationships and work on them productively- so your question could be for the mentee as well.

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