Much has been said about mentoring, since an early discussion of the construct in the Harvard Business Review. Since that time — volumes have been written — and the topic has been examined and reexamined, from various vantage points. This has included the functions of mentoring (career-related vs. psychosocial support), intended outcomes (skill attainment, compensation, promotions) and its impact upon work life, in general (job satisfaction, retention).
Mentoring is by no means a new concept — although it remains one of the most powerful workplace constructs. If you consider the term for a moment (think of Socrates), you’ll discover that mentoring has existed for ages. Because of the sheer power of the mentoring relationship, mentoring will continue to evolve with changes in both organizational culture and technology. Of course, the basic concept of mentoring is simple and brilliant — you spend time with someone who possessed great knowledge or experience about a specific subject — you observe, reflect and absorb information that enhances your work life.
There has been evidence that the process may work a bit better for men than women. But whether we are discussing men or women, problems with mentoring may arise because some basic tenets are not followed. Other problems can arise because we are not utilizing newer, more creative applications of the process.
Here are some guidelines to help power the process:
- Are you seeking a mentor, a sponsor (a form of mentorship) or both? Where a mentor may help with a skill set or knowledge base — a sponsor might focus on moving you through the organization, helping you to secure challenging assignments or enhance your visibility.
- Mentoring relationships must be mutual, not assigned. The matching process should be left to ultimately to choice — where the mentor and mentee agree to work together. If possible, consider more than one potential mentor to ensure there is potential for a real bond. In an ideal world, formal programs would allow mentees the opportunity to meet a number of possible matches before a choice is made.
- Define the goals of the relationship. If you feel it is imperative to enter into a mentoring relationship, you should outline a clear picture as to what you really require and where you’d like to go. Set specific long and short-term goals with your mentor or sponsor. Do you want to master a specific skill or knowledge base? Are you seeking increased visibility? Have the “goals” discussion early and often.
- Think outside of the box when choosing a mentor. There has been an interesting suggestion to convene a “Board of Directors” for your career — a group that would not be entirely left behind if you should change organizations. So, you would not only seek an internal mentor or sponsor, but a group of external experts to help guide you as well. Moreover, don’t rule out less established or younger employees as potential mentors. If an individual is an expert in an area, actively consider them a mentor candidate.
- Be open. Don’t subscribe to the notion that “dissenting opinions are not allowed”. Strive to embrace constructive criticism (some tips for that here). This can be a challenge, but remember you are in the relationship to learn. What you don’t know can hurt your career — so be open to whatever honest feedback comes your way.
- Be respectful. However, don’t trade things running smoothly at the cost of a productive relationship. Ask for what you need and “rock the boat” just a bit if necessary. Be diplomatic, and voice your concerns if you find that the relationship has reached an impasse.
All in all, mentoring should be a positive process, however things can go wrong. If you have a concern that the dynamic is less than stellar — you may need to explore moving on.