The Harvard Business Review article How to Mentor a Narcissist by W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith might be off-putting to most active mentors and potential mentors. After all, how often do you end up mentoring narcissists? In ten years of mentoring I think I’ve come across one or two, but both of them were so narcissistic that they didn’t feel they needed any mentoring! They were just there because mentoring was part of a program they were in that gave them a grant to work on their project, otherwise they wouldn’t have even showed up for the first meeting.
But HBR articles are almost always worth reading, and this one is also, as the authors strategies for mentoring a narcissist are actually very helpful in mentoring anyone. And should you happen to get assigned a narcissist as a mentee you’ll be well prepared. So I’ll give you the tips, with my annotations. To get the authors’ amplifications of their strategies and a lot of background on mentoring a narcissist, please read their original article.
First, work on your empathy
No matter who your mentee is, you need to be empathetic, meaning that you need to have the ability to understand and share the feelings of your mentee. However, that is quite different from being sympathetic. To be sympathetic means that you show approval or favor towards your mentee’s ideas or actions. The best mentors are not sympathetic, as they are not judgmental. We need to understand our mentee’s ideas and actions, but we have to be very careful about judging them. The best practice is to help your founder to elicit the pros and cons or their idea or action. Once they have done that you can then help them build a flow chart to better understand the ramifications of pursuing their idea or taking action. In other words the best mentors facilitate decision making, they don’t make decisions for their mentees.
Listen and discern
Listening is the number one requirement for mentors. You don’t learn anything when you are talking and you need to learn as much as possible about your mentees, their goals and objectives and the context in which they operate. But listening is necessary, but no sufficient. You also need to discern what is important and relevant in what you hear. Not everything your founders will say will be something you need to react to. We have limited times with our mentees – usually 60 to 90 minutes, so discerning what needs attention, what can wait, and what is simply not relevant is important to be efficient with your time and your founder’s.
Begin with mirroring
Mirroring means providing your mentee affirmation, understanding and acceptance. I’d be careful with this strategy as you risk getting into the judgmental area here. The best technique is to playback what you have heard to make sure you understand it. So when your founder gives you a disquisition on their business model you may want to mirror what they said. “So what I hear you saying is that you believe the best way to generate revenue is to license your application to a partner who can handle sales, marketing, and customer support because you really want to concentrate on product development. Is that right?” This technique is non-judgmental, but does demonstrate your understanding. Though after fully understanding the founder’s business you may decide to nudge them into a different model. So be careful with the “acceptance” piece of this strategy.
Use Socratic questions to build insight
Asking the right questions at the right time is second only to listening and discerning in importance for mentors. Sometimes you may need to be persistent in your questioning, but always be gentle. Our job is to guide, but not to push. Asking the right questions can help the founder come up with answers themselves rather than looking to you to provide the answers.
In conflict, lead with how you feel
I’ve rarely run into conflicts with the founders I mentor. But in the rare occasions that you may have to deal with a confrontative or aggressive founder, this is good advice. Letting the founder know that what he or she is saying is making you feel that perhaps they aren’t ready to take advice or guidance from a mentor can help to defuse a conflict. But by being generally non-judgmental and when you do make a judgement making sure you are not judging the individual but only their idea or action, you should be able to avoid conflicts from arising.
Take care of yourself
Again this is good advice when dealing with a truly difficult mentee who may provoke feelings of frustration or anger with their behavior. In the rare occasions when you run into this getting guidance from other mentors can help greatly. And in general you need to come into mentor sessions feeling calm, relaxed, well-prepared and ready to be helpful. So manage your schedule and other demands on your time so you won’t be distracted by other obligations or in a rush to get to your next meeting.
Let’s hope that you never are in the position of having to mentor a narcissist. But if you are, this article is must reading. And virtually all founders have large egos – you have to in order to be an entrepreneur and truly believe 100% in what you are doing – so these strategies can and will work with any founder you mentor.