Business mentoring 101

The word “mentor” comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was a sort of foster parent to Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, during his father’s epic journey home from the Trojan wars.

Since then, there have been many epic mentor-mentee relationships throughout fiction…and reality: Socrates and Plato, da Vinci and Raphael, Emerson and Thoreau, Morpheus and Neo, Rupert and Buffy.

In the professional world, a mentoring relationship can be a beautiful thing—if the circumstances are right. Mentees get effective and enlightening job training, mentors get useful career development experience, and the company gets fulfilled and well-trained workers. That’s what we call win-win-win.

The question is how to create a collaborative, mutually beneficial mentorship experience. But January is National Mentoring Month, so there’s no time like the present to contemplate how to create an internal mentoring experience that’s more Luke-Yoda than Al Abrams-Jordan Belfort.

Defining a healthy relationship

Though it may sound obvious, it’s important to state that a good business mentoring relationship is one that benefits both people, and one that is entered into willingly. It’s important to say it, because some companies require employees to engage in a mentorship program, when they really shouldn’t be forced.

From the mentee’s perspective, a mentor should be able to help them understand the “off the record” politics, history and culture of a company, and the leanings of some key individuals. Ideally, mentors should also provide broad career guidance. It’s best, then, for an internal mentor to live within a different chain of command. If both parties report to the same people, there could be barriers that prohibit speaking freely.

From the mentor’s perspective, the mentee needs to be willing to listen and act on their advice—otherwise, what’s the point, right? In return, mentors may benefit from hearing what the up-and-comers are concerned with, or perhaps what customers are talking about. It’s a good way to get perspective that’s otherwise difficult to attain.

Finding a business mentor

According to Rebooting Work co-author Maynard Webb, mentorships are on the decline. This could be because people tend to job hop, have already-heavy workloads, or fear that training an underling may one day cost them a job in a tight and competitive market.

Another explanation: companies are so focused on being leaner and meaner and doing more with less that senior management simply doesn’t have time to worry about “benefits” like a mentorship program. That’s a shame, because a meta-analysis of mentored and non-mentored individuals found that workplace mentorships positively affect career outcomes.

Mind the gaps

Apparently, the oft-invoked generation and gender gaps are at play when it comes to mentorship, and the issues are worth considering if you’re planning to establish a workplace program.

For instance, women are less likely than men to have mentors, and some of the reasons why are illustrated in this LinkedIn graphic. Possible explanations for the gap may include a woman’s belief that hard work, not connections, is more important to career advancement, or, given a dearth of female mentors, a concern that male-female mentorships may be perceived as inappropriate.

Regarding the generation gap, there are several interesting points to consider. First, a study published in Nature suggested that individuals in the first third of their career make better mentors than those in the last third, maybe because more senior people are overextended or, perhaps, too far removed from a younger person’s experience to be effective teachers.

Another age-related point to consider is that mentorship can go both ways. In a Harvard Business Review article, Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd explain how “reverse mentoring” can work for senior leadership as well as younger workers. The basic point: we all have a bit of Telemachus and Mentor in us, and we should all be open to learning something new.

All that said, if you can’t find an epic mentor in your own workplace, perhaps Angela and Kevin’s Rules for Mentoring will suffice.

Post by Jill Coody Smits

Jill Coody Smits is an Austin-based freelance writer and proponent of research-backed communication. Interested in psychology, health, fitness, and human rights. Wife, mother, traveler, reader, dog-lover, unaccomplished athlete.