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9 Situations When Outside Mentoring Matters Most: A Leader’s Guide

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. No leader grows alone—and often, coaching by one’s manager and peers isn’t enough. Mentoring relationships can adeptly fill this void, giving leaders open access to dialogue that advises them and perspective that challenges them. In some cases, leaders can find—or are assigned—a mentor within their company, giving them mentorship’s benefits without needing to look beyond the company’s walls. But are there circumstances when an internal mentor isn’t enough, and an outsider’s viewpoint is essential? Are there times when these connections with outside mentors—either facilitated by a leader’s company or self-initiated—are actually more valuable than internal coaches? Using data from over 13,000 leaders in our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 and comparing their views of the effectiveness of internal and outside mentors, we found nine situations when this difference substantially favors outside mentoring.

As a leader, you’re more likely to find outside mentoring more effective than internal mentoring when:

  1. MentorYour company’s leaders are lousy: Outside mentoring 36% more effective.

    No surprises here—if your company’s leaders don’t have the credibility or capability to advise you on how to become a better leader yourself, you’re much more likely to turn to external mentors for useful advice.
  2. Your company’s leadership development programs are lousy: Outside mentoring 25% more effective.

    If your company isn’t doing much to develop its leaders through formal or on-the-job learning (which is usually a driver of the low leader quality mentioned above), you’ll likely find outside mentors necessary to give you the guidance to grow.
  3. Your company has no internal mentoring program: Outside mentoring 22% more effective.

    More than one in three companies have no internal mentoring program at all. If you’re a leader in one of these companies, you’ll almost certainly have no other choice—you’re likely on your own in looking for and finding value in an outside mentor.
  4. The developmental assignments you get are poor or nonexistent: Outside mentoring 17% more effective.

    High-caliber leadership development typically has formal learning as its foundation, but rarely stops there—if you’re not getting access to developmental assignments at all or only poor ones seem to cross your path, you’re likely to find outside mentoring the best way to close the gap between what you know and what you want to know.
  5. You’re a higher-level leader: Outside mentoring 14% more effective.

    Though frontline leaders rate internal and external mentoring as similarly effective, outside mentoring becomes progressively more useful as leaders rise up the ranks. If you’re in a higher-level leader role or aspire to be, the pool of knowledgeable internal coaches shrinks, and you’re likely to see more value in an external viewpoint on how to advance and become a stronger leader. Though at a company level this perspective is often associated with members of a board of directors, these advantages can be extended to individual leaders as well.
  6. Your company values managing much more than interacting: Outside mentoring 14more effective.

    A leader’s job involves not just assigning tasks and evaluating performance, but also coaching, gaining commitment, and other interaction-based ways to engage with employees. If your company markedly and visibly values the managing part of a leader’s job more than the interacting part—and many do—that’s often a signal that you’ll need to turn to outside mentoring for valuable guidance on leadership growth.
  7. You’ve spent over five years in your current leadership role: Outside mentoring 14% more effective.

    Regardless of leader level, the value of outside mentoring increases with experience—whether high-tenure leaders have stronger external networks to draw on or whether they simply exhaust the available pool of internal coaches, they consistently find advice from outside mentors more effective. If you’ve been in your current leadership role for several years, consider seeking an outside mentor to supplement the coaching you’re getting from your manager and peers to continue or restart your progress and growth.
  8. You are NOT in a high-potential pool: Outside mentoring 10% more effective.
    Members of a high-potential pool are often assigned internal mentors to guide their development. If you’re in the majority of leaders who are not in one of these pools, however, an outside mentor can produce similar benefits for high-quality advice and guidance (though not the same advantages for within-company visibility and opportunity associated with identification as a high-potential).
  9. You work in the technology, transportation, pharmaceutical, or construction industries: Outside mentoring from 10% to 52% more effective.

    Of all the industries we researched, leaders in these four industries were most likely to find outside mentors more valuable than internal ones. Several of these industries, particularly technology and pharmaceutical, face extreme pressures in VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).

    If you’re working in these industries, outside mentors can provide critical insights for maintaining and growing your personal adaptability and velocity as you respond to your company’s business challenges.

As a leader, mentoring is vital for your development, helping you craft and continually refine a vision of personal growth that is linked to—but not wholly dependent on—your company’s ability to put a multifaceted leadership development program in place. Not all types of mentors are created equal, however, and for some, the number and quality of internal mentors available fall short, and outside mentors become essential. Don’t assume that a company-assigned mentor—or even an internal mentor at all—is your only path to drawing on the immense benefits of a rich mentoring relationship. If you find yourself in one (or more) of the situations above, you’re more likely to find an outside mentor to be the missing puzzle piece, in addition to formal learning and on-the-job assignments, in your personal plan for rapid and long-term leadership growth.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

For more information about the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research, including 25 highly actionable findings about the current state of leadership, an evidence-based roadmap for leadership development, a scoreboard of 20 common talent management practices, and global benchmarks for 11 metrics about leadership talent, see

Posted: 25 Aug, 2015,
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