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I am a team lead in a tech company, and I'd like to know if it's taboo to ask an engineer on the team to mentor me in leadership. This individual does not report to me of course, but I am in a leadership position on the same team.

The engineer was a successful manager for several years, left the corporate world to pursue entrepreneurship, then came to our company as an engineer. He didn't pursue management again because he wanted to be hands-on again.

I have quite a bit of respect for this person, and I believe they can help me navigate corporate politics and give advice on handling situations.

I can definitely see a potential conflict of interest, but the topics I wish to discuss are mostly interactions with my manager and other teams.

  • 6
    Just make sure it doesn't lead to your showing favoritism toward this engineer. – AffableAmbler Nov 8 '17 at 21:06
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    Can you clarify "mentor"? Getting some general management advice from him would be fine, but this "advice on handling situations" sounds very off to me. – Lilienthal Nov 9 '17 at 7:45
  • As a subordinate, I'd feel uneasy about it, because my bad teaching skills could be confused for lacking knowledge/capability by the superior I'm mentoring. – pmf Nov 9 '17 at 10:15
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I see no reason to not leverage a resource that you have access to. If the engineer isn't interested in managing then that's all the more reason to leverage this persons experience.

Having said that there are likely some topics that are out of bounds - coworker salaries and other personal information would be my top two.

I've been the engineer and the manager and as the engineer I wouldn't worry about a manager learning from me and as the manager I'm happy to learn from my coworkers, even if it's not technical.

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It would be wildly inappropriate if you managed this person but as you don't I'd say it's fine (assuming the manager-turned-engineer is happy with it of course), not ideal but nothing drastically wrong with it.

There are some things to bear in mind though:

  1. Keep any discussions in general terms - it wouldn't be appropriate to get into specifics surrounding other individuals

  2. Avoid discussing any topics or situtations where there is a conflict of interest. Even if the engineer is trustworthy and you don't believe they would give you "advice" that would unduly benefit them this perception could easily form within other members of the team and once such a perception (or one of favoritism etc) forms you'll never get rid of it.

  3. As much as possible keep this discreet - not only do you want to avoid the perceptions I mention above but you don't want to give the impression to your reports that you lack confidence or ability to lead.

  4. Avoid any situation where you are essentially using this person to make decisions for you - not only will it not actually teach you anything but you'll probably piss them off (they chose to get out of managment remember!) and it's fundamentally unprofessional to basically get someone else to do the job that you are employed to do.

  5. Keep this to a minimal level - this person was hired as an engineer not as a leadership coach, if you start disrupting their ability to do their actual job your bosses are unlikely to be pleased. Picking their brains a couple of times a month is one thing - asking for discussions about this every other day would be an entirely different story.

  6. As much as is possible you want to make sure they really are okay with doing it - there can be a natural sense of unspoken pressure to agree to requests from those higher up the ladder so try and make it clear that it's OK if they don't want to help you and that there will be no negative consequences if they decline the request.

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It's absolutely a good idea. I recommend being willing to learn from anyone you can... friends, bosses, coworkers, the new intern, anyone who has some lore to drop on you!

As long as you're polite and not annoying about asking, approaching this ex-manager type could work out well for you. Maybe you ask him if you can take him out to lunch to "pick his brain" about his management experience. Basically, ask nicely and without pressure.

Per other answers, you won't generate a conflict of interest unless you unnecessarily favor the guy.

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