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Mentoring: when is it time for the mentee to move on?

Mentoring is all about transitions – foreseeing them, preparing for them, managing them and moving on from them. But mentees often don’t recognise how ready they are for a transition.

It’s a bit like outgrowing your clothes, but not doing anything about it because you can still squeeze into them. It’s useful for a mentor to have a few tools to make the process of transition more transparent – so here are some that I use when appropriate:

Competence and energy curves 

When people start a new job, they are usually on a steep learning curve, which may continue as they absorb further responsibilities. Eventually they approach the top of the bell curve, where for a period they will be on top of their game. Learning here is incremental and comes mainly from applying their expertise and knowledge to tasks that have some new aspects, but are largely predictable.

This period can be quite short before they enter into 'coast' mode, where the work brings little challenge. Sometimes they compensate by looking for challenges in other areas, outside of their formal job role. But the stark truth is that when their role loses its learning potential, they also lose their energy for it. 

The time to take action is when the roller coaster starts to slow down as it approaches the top. The two most constructive options at this point are to create a new bell curve by extending the current role into major new responsibilities; or to move to another, separate bell curve in a less connected area. 

Mentors can help in this process by: 

  • Giving feedback on the energy levels they perceive when the mentee talks about their job;
  • Reviewing with the mentee the balance of new learning, applied learning and coasting that he or she is experiencing;
  • Raising the mentee’s awareness of how quickly learning can slow down, so they can monitor where they are on the curve, and;
  • Helping them plan how they will launch themselves onto a new bell curve, with or without moving jobs. 

When it’s clear it’s time to move on… 

Three planning processes can be valuable here. The first is the mentee’s 'bucket list' – what they want to achieve before they move on. Useful mentoring questions here include:

  • What makes this so important for you to achieve?
  • Do you need to complete it, or simply lay the foundations for your successor to build on?
  • Having identified the issue, are you really the best person to resolve it? 

The second process is letting go. We all hoard tasks that we could have delegated and/or that have lost their learning potential. Identifying these and letting them go can speed progress up the bell curve, but it also releases time and energy the mentee can invest in creating their next curve.

The third process is the mentee’s legacy. Some people seem to be obsessed with what they leave behind from the moment they start a leadership role. That’s not healthy, but looking to what you’d like to leave behind when you're moving on can be very cathartic, and typically leads people to focus on what’s important for themselves and the organisation. Talking about their legacy with a mentor opens up the potential to share it with direct reports and other stakeholders, and to gain support and engagement. 

Mentors can help mentees reflect upon and create a working document to address each of these processes. They can challenge the mentee’s motivations and assumptions, and help them search for the next bell curve. And they can be there, encouraging in the background, as the steep ascent of that learning curve begins.

David Clutterbuck is an academic whose research focuses on mentoring, management and leadership development. He is the practice lead of David Clutterbuck Partnership.