What role, if any, should a hiring manager play in protégé's ongoing development?

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Q: I hired, trained and mentored an entry-level professional who, after two years, earned a promotion doing similar work in another department. In the year since she took that job, we have been in frequent email contact, have worked together on projects occasionally and have seen each other at meetings once or twice a month.

She is clearly succeeding, but I have seen and heard one or two things (including one criticism from her direct supervisor) that make me believe some more structured and deliberate mentoring could help her. We are both very busy, so making time to talk over coffee hasn’t really worked. And I think part of her career strategy at this point is to establish an identity independent of my influence.

This was my first protégé, and I’m proud of the progress she has made. I would like to see her stay on track to move up, and I know there will be openings. But I don’t know what role, if any, I should play in that.

Should I suggest some sort of regular meeting (maybe quarterly) for mentoring? Or is it not my place to suggest that to someone who hasn’t asked for it? — Anonymous

A: You sound like a thoughtful mentor. And you’re smart to recognize the importance of one of the trickiest questions in the mentor-protégé relationship: Should I let go?

One way or another, it’s important that at some point this person feels that her professional identity is hers, and not just some reflected-glory side effect of her association with you. (Even if that was never really the case, what matters at this stage is how the protégé feels about the relationship.)

Given that you already detect a desire for independence, I’d say suggesting quarterly meetings is the wrong way to go: It might seem too much like a gambit to assert some kind of permanent influence over her career.

Instead, suggest one meeting, and go into it with the mindset that you are in effect turning over control of this relationship to her. In other words, don’t think about it in terms of what you’re obligated to say or do. Think about it in terms of what she wants from you, or doesn’t.

Be straightforward: “You’re doing great, and you probably don’t need my help anymore. Still, we all need input from time to time, so I just want to say I’m a resource if you need me, but I want that to be up to you.”

I’m not sure how candid you can be about the criticism you’ve heard, but if it’s possible you might also share that. Just try to frame it productively: not “I hear complaints about X” but rather “From what I hear you might benefit from trying Y.”

In other words, communicate that this is about her, not you. You’re on her side, and you’ll be there if she needs you, whether that’s tomorrow or years from now. And most important: If you say this, make sure you mean it.