Why is mentoring important?

Posted on August 20, 2012 by


I have noticed something recently, and I doubt that it is merely a coincidence…

People who have attained great heights in their chosen careers, whether in business or academia, in athletics or the arts, are always happy to name, and give credit, to their mentors. And those mentors, although they may be quick to minimize their contribution, agree that the relationship was one of mentor-mentee.

And yet, if you ask the average person, living an everyday life and enjoying moderate success in their career, to name their mentor, they will be hard-pressed to do so. You’ll hear all kinds of answers, from “many people helped me in my life” to “I learned it all in the school of hard knocks”, but you’ll rarely hear about a specific person. And when a specific person is named, chances are that the person named would be surprised because the relationship was never formalized or acknowledged. They never knew they were seen as a mentor, and probably never saw themselves that way.

Don’t take my word for this. Try it sometime — ask 10 people around you to name their mentors or mentees. Chances are, the only ones able to name a specific person are the ones you most admire (or are most envious of).

Now, I’m not a sociologist, and my observations are certainly anecdotal, but I think there is something to be learned from this state of affairs. Could it be that the existence of a formal, mutually recognized mentor-mentee relationship is what helps a person to reach the peaks of success and recognition?

I believe that most of us look at mentor-mentee relationships as kind of like eating raw bran and plain yogurt for breakfast. We know we should, but we don’t. Or we tell ourselves that our informal relationships are just as good, and I don’t believe that’s the case.

Mentor-mentee relationships bring tremendous value to both participants. They provide guidance and support to the younger mentee, and validate the life’s learning and experience of the older mentor. They increase retention within an organization, and help less experienced employees navigate the career minefield. But to be most beneficial, they should be  formalized, with mutually agreed upon expectations and commitments. Here are some straightforward steps to fostering these relationships and making them successful:

  • Choose a mentor whose goals are similar to yours
  • Request a meeting, and be specific as to why you want to meet
  • Make sure the mentor has time for the relationship (at least 2 hours per month, often broken into weekly calls or meetings)
  • Write out a formal agreement that outlines the roles and expectations of both participants
  • Set a time frame, perhaps 12 months

What are reasonable expectations?

  • The relationship does not exist indefinitely, but has an agreed upon lifespan.
  • Both parties commit to spend at least 2 hours a month with each other, ideally 30 minutes a week.
  • The mentee takes the initiative to drive the relationship. After all, the mentee has more to gain than the mentor.
  • The mentor provides open and tactful feedback and advice.
  • The mentee accepts this feedback and advice with grace.
  • When advice is given, the mentee acts on it, and lets the mentor know the results of the action.
  • Both mentor and mentee honor schedules and commitments.
  • Both sides honor confidences.
  • They occasionally evaluate the relationship to make sure it is worthwhile.

My advice to those of you who don’t have a formalized mentor-mentee relationship: Look around you and identify someone you respect. Do it this week. Ask for a meeting. And go from there, one step at a time.

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