When a mentor bids adieu

Dorie Clark Speaking Engagement

Dorie Clark speaking to the BoonRawd Corporation (makers of Singha Beer), Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Thitiwat Nookae.

Question: My mentor was let go from my company, and now my close relationship with him is putting my personal brand in jeopardy. What should I do? How can I make the new leader believe that my loyalty is to the company, and not just to my mentor? Should I be talking to someone or should I continue to do my job and cut off ties with my mentor for the time being?

It’s a dream scenario: You have a mentor at your company who believes in you, knows you do good work, and is on the lookout to ensure you’re first in line for promotions, raises, and professional development. And then it all disappears. It can be a cruel twist of fate when your mentor leaves the company, because the very thing that aided your advancement—your close relationship with a patron —now endangers it. You may now be viewed with suspicion: Are you loyal to the company, or to your departed benefactor?

Whether your mentor left voluntarily (perhaps he got a great job offer from another company, or started his own business) or was unceremoniously fired, there are new threats to your personal brand you have to manage. Here’s how to do it.

Determine how your mentor is now perceived. Because you and your mentor are linked in people’s minds, his reputation determines what others will be thinking about you. If he left for another company, your new boss may wonder if you’re planning to join him. And if he left under a cloud of ethical allegations, people may wonder if you’re similarly tainted. Make sure you’re clear on what notions you’ll need to dispel.

Keep up your relationship with your mentor —if appropriate. If someone has believed in you and stood up for you, it’s almost always worth it to maintain the relationship, because (unfortunately) those people are too rare in professional life. But that doesn’t mean you have to flaunt it, either. If your new boss is worried about your loyalties, don’t invite your mentor to meet you for lunch at a restaurant that everyone from your office patronizes. Instead, be friendly but discreet —it’s no longer a work relationship, but a personal one, and should be handled on personal time. The only exception is if your mentor has left because of a serious misdeed—committing a crime or somehow betraying the company. If you believe the allegation is true, your only choice is to cut him off.

Let your current boss know you’re in—110%. Your new boss surely knows about your bond with his predecessor and probably expects you to compare him negatively. He may actually feel insecure about how you perceive him! So take the initiative and address the situation directly. Find a quiet time with your new boss and tell him, “I’m sure you’re aware I was close to Rajesh. But I want you to know I’m very glad to be working with you and I want to have the most positive relationship with you possible. My loyalty isn’t to any one person—it’s to this company. I’m excited about our work together.” Your calm, assertive handling of the situation will impress your new boss. And when you strategically demonstrate your commitment to working with him over the coming weeks—volunteering for assignments, and perhaps getting to know him as a person by inviting him for lunch or coffee —then he’ll know you’re serious.

Losing a mentor can be a professional blow—but it doesn’t have to derail your career. These three steps can ensure a smooth transition to working with your new boss and solidifying your place in the company.

This post originally appeared on the Mint website on May 13, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.