Mending Mentor Relationships

Employees End Up Damaging Their Relationships With Mentors Not by Making Gaffes, but by Reacting to Them Poorly

July 1, 2014
by Charlie Wells

Wall_Street_Journal_Online_logoThe Disappearing Act

Soon after she started working as an analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase JPM -0.06 % & Co., Katherine Buck, 27, developed a mentoring relationship with Kevin Alger, a senior executive with over 30 years’ experience at the bank. Mr. Alger made Ms. Buck feel confident, she says, and even nurtured some of her more creative talents in a very corporate environment.

“I feel like he always had my back,” says Ms. Buck.

But then she went missing. At least, that’s what Mr. Alger remembers.

Ms. Buck left J.P. Morgan for a role at BlackRock Inc., BLK 0.04 % and eventually landed in a marketing position at the financial-technology company Betterment. During that time, she fell out of touch with her mentor.

So she felt very nervous a few years later, drafting Mr. Alger an email about getting together to talk business. It had been a while.

But Mr. Alger says he was honored that Ms. Buck reached out. He says he doesn’t mind when mentees who haven’t been in touch for a long time suddenly call or email. It makes him feel like he has “built deep roots.”

And in fact, the day after Ms. Buck hit send, the two of them were in a restaurant together for lunch, talking shop.

The Reversal

It was at some point during his sixth year of teaching public school that Daniel Chang, 28, decided he needed a change.

Mr. Chang applied to the Flatiron School, a full-time technical program aimed at turning professionals and recent graduates into Web developers, and was accepted in the spring of 2013.

There was just one problem: Mr. Chang had signed on for a position teaching higher-level math to students in a two-year tracked program at Pace High School in Manhattan. He would be leaving only one year after being recruited from a different public school by his mentor, assistant principal Michael Sowiski, 33.

“It weighed heavily on me,” says Mr. Chang, who adds that he considers Mr. Sowiski one of the strongest leaders he encountered in his teaching career.

The night Mr. Chang told Mr. Sowiski, the assistant principal says he was disappointed. He’d trained Mr. Chang, helped him with lesson plans and could even see his mentee as a teacher “for 30 years.”

But Mr. Chang made it clear to his mentor that he was committed to his students. He helped hire his replacement and worked over the summer to ensure a smooth transition before leaving Pace.

Mr. Sowiski says he understood, and was impressed by Mr. Chang’s commitment, even after he’d decided on a different path.

The two stay in frequent touch, and Mr. Sowiski says he believes his mentee may someday bring this interest in tech back into the classroom, maybe even his.

The Gaffe

Jenna Velasquez felt like she’d made a big mistake.

The 23-year-old hadn’t earned a degree in business. But at a San Francisco Bay Area brunch earlier this year, she managed to so impress a principal at a local financial advisory firm that she landed an internship, which she hoped would launch a career in the industry.

Michelle Perry Higgins, the principal, was happy to mentor the recent college grad. She had Ms. Velasquez read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, and encouraged her mentee to ask a lot of questions.

So one day, Ms. Velasquez asked, “What is an equity?”

It was then that Ms. Perry Higgins knew Ms. Velasquez needed a lot more financial training than she could offer. She told her mentee that she wouldn’t be offered a job at the end of her internship.

For a while, Ms. Velasquez felt awful. But she kept her chin up. She crafted a business plan—still centered on building a career in finance—and studied hard, reading more books recommended by her mentor.

Ms. Perry Higgins says she has been impressed by Ms. Velasquez’s ability to learn quickly and to engage after an initial slip, and is certainly going to help her find a job elsewhere by guiding her skills and reaching out to her contacts.