When the Boss Needs Mentoring


We all benefit from mentorship. Even those that hold lofty, leadership roles experience this need. When we look back on preparation for our current role for example, we can all identify training gaps. Ultimately, these gaps can come to roost over our paths in unsettling ways.

Early in my career, a VP in my firm pulled me into his office. Realizing that he wasn’t as popular as he might have hoped — he asked — in no uncertain terms where he had gone wrong. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. He was reviled by many, feared by most, and known for being a hard-lined leader with absolutely no heart. He had a reputation for choosing clients over team members in a manner where resentment and anger were bound to grow. Sadly, I had been on the receiving end of this dynamic.

I surmised the conversation was precipitated by a “lively” discussion months earlier concerning a client situation where I had felt grossly unsupported. The situation had led to some very harsh words and much stress. In that moment, I realized that this sentiment was shared on both sides. For some reason, he realized that this was a growing pattern — and he likely lived in the center of that storm.

In retrospect, we invest a lot of time building our leaders, but fail to offer the same attention to management skills as they move through supervisory roles. When management skills are neglected, leaders often walk a fine line between expressing power and remaining relatable, which is difficult to master. This can be exacerbated if an individual possesses a temperament or demeanor that can misconstrued as “cold” — where building a warm feeling toward that leader can be very, very difficult. His overt displays of power, were undermining the potential afforded by his role.

He needed to express his own humanity. However, this was a tall order when trust was already undermined. Appearing “false” or “contrived” was of course a risk. The core of existing relationships was likely damaged or weakened.

What I said:

  • Celebrate the work. After a project was delivered, there was only silence from leadership, and a sense of relief/exhaustion from team members. Marking our successes in a positive manner, was fundamental for the team to stay energized longer-term. This fell on him, to do so.

What I would add today:

  • Acknowledge our challenges. Share that he understood that our line of work was challenging. With tough clients and looming deadlines, the work was — even in the best of situations — rigorous.
  • Respect what excellence demands. The quality of the work that was delivered was exceptional. However, this became routine and was demanded/expected with little thought of the impact on the team’s psychological resources.

As a final note, I have to commend this individual for coming forward and expressing the need for guidance. Why he chose me, I’ll never know. However, I respect his request whole-hardheartedly.

Reverse-mentoring is a beautiful thing.

Remember that eflection is the first step in the path to development and change. If you have identified a possible gap in your training — seek the mentor who can shed the most light on that gap. Your role, level and age are irrelevant.

Have you ever been asked to mentor your boss? What did you do?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. She explores the need for Core Stability at work. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

One thought on “When the Boss Needs Mentoring

  1. You named it right. Reverse Mentoring. Someone had to write about it to name it 🙂
    Thanks for that



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