No innovator is an island. Anyone who's progressed as an entrepreneur can think to moments in their careers when they were shepherded on by a senior leader who believed in them, a co-worker who excelled at training or a third-party peer who offered solicited (or unsolicited) advice that changed a perspective or two. Mentorship comes in all shapes and sizes, and having at least one trusted individual in your corner is crucial for your professional growth.

Entering into a mentor-mentee relationship doesn't have to come with a formal job description or contract signing. Mentoring can be casual, with an open-door policy that encourages conversation and sharing of experiences when either party feels the time is right. From young entrepreneurs to more experienced founders seeking extra help in a particular area of business, everyone can benefit from such an arrangement - it's never a bad idea to have someone with clout sharing their knowledge and watering your potential.

Because many mentorships are informally constructed, however, even the most well-meaning mentors can do wrong by their proteges without realizing it. For advice-seekers and those looking to impart their influence on the next crop of entrepreneurial stars, it's important to recognize the signs of a mentor relationship gone wrong.

Loss of identity for the mentee

It would be unfair to portray individuals in positions of power as preying on the naive, but authority figures sometimes smell a desperate desire in greener entrepreneurs to make a name for themselves and pounce accordingly. The one-sided relationship that results strips the mentee of their individual path, often inadvertently molding them into a mini-me version of the mentor.

If you're seeking out a mentor in your career, vet the people you have an eye on to fill that role first. Have they successfully worked with others in your position and helped them achieve their true potentials? Or do they have a track record of personal advancement at the expense of the people they claimed to be helping? The best mentors will impart wisdom and stand back while their proteges discover their own methods of executing on ideas; they're sages who offer a listening ear but never a meddling arm.

Mentors who do try to shape their mentees in their own image aren't doing so maliciously. As with any teacher, there's a sense of responsibility for failure that reflects back on the person giving the lesson. That's why trust is at the foundation of this type of relationship. Mentees should be encouraged to fail and learn from it. If a mentor doesn't feel comfortable watching the occasional flop, they're better off continuing to focus on what made them successful and not taking on mentorship roles.

Relying on one, and only one, mentor

Even Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan and Yoda. Don't let one perspective become law before you're able to let multiple viewpoints in; seek out several people you respect whom you specifically know may not agree with each other. Remember, you're not looking for a handbook on exactly what to do in your career. You want to take control of your own decisions, and the best way to do that is by weighing options first.

In fact, it's even healthy to seek out mentors whom you yourself disagree with. A mentor isn't necessarily a boss, you aren't obliged to do as they say. Devil's advocates can become your best source of inspiration because they force you to check all the boxes, even the ones you may not have considered.

Crossing boundaries

A mentor need not be your boss, and they also need not be your friend. This goes both ways - each side should have their antennae up when it comes to prying into personal lives, or being overly reliant on the other beyond what feels appropriate. Generally, mentors have more to lose since they're in positions of power, and any "misbehavior" on the part of the mentee can be viewed as a strike against leadership or even a complete disregard for advice.

Lack of mentee spark

When the honeymoon phase of a mentor/mentee relationship wears off, it's time to honestly assess the effect each is having on the other. At first, a mentee might feel great knowing they can always count on their mentors to have their backs. If not properly nurtured, this can evolve into complacency and a reluctance on the part of the mentee to think for themselves. If, as a mentor, you notice your protege regressing, figure out a way to take their training wheels off.

Mentorships can be the symbiotic relationships that propel individuals and organizations to greater innovative heights. They can also become lopsided pairings that knock one or both parties off their desired paths. Knowing when you're in a poor mentoring relationship from either side will help you move on and find the right people to take you to the next level.

Published on: Oct 14, 2016