I believe in the power of mentorships. I also believe that people can vastly underestimate the complexity of what it takes to match a protege (or mentee) with a mentor, or they may have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a mentorship is. 

A mentorship is a special relationship. It requires the mentor to have gone through the same path (typically a career path) that the protege seeks to follow. From that foundation a partnership is built of respect, admiration, vulnerability, and a long list of other hard to come by qualities. It can also be useful if the mentor has comparable life experiences as the protege, as our professional lives do not exist in a vacuum.

Sometimes programs that are billed as mentorship programs are not really about mentorship, but rather an extension of or variation on an orientation program. They are a way to help new or less experienced people get better knowledge of the organization. The people who are given the title of mentor in these programs are only there to show someone else the ropes. Rather than having powerful and meaningful conversations about growth and development as a professional, the “mentors” give tips on how to navigate the idiosyncrasies of their firms. They might say things like, “Don’t send the requisition form to Paul despite what the routing tells you to do. If you need it fast, send it to Lana.” Or, “It’s best to park on the east side of the lot even though it’s a longer hike in. At least your car won’t be an oven by the end of the day.”

When done right, mentorship programs can help establish a culture of fellowship and collegiality.

While this kind of information might be useful, it’s not what mentorships are about. A mentor provides deeply meaningful advice based on their own experience or relays anecdotes about how they succeeded or failed in a given situation. This can help the protege make their own determinations about how they will proceed. 

Sometimes a mentor may just serve as a sounding board—not really providing any solutions or suggestions to a problem. Instead, just being there to empathize with a difficult situation. For a protege having someone who will listen and not judge can be priceless resource. 

It’s a good idea for mentors and proteges to talk about what the goals are for the relationship on a regular basis. Be sure to set parameters, too. You don’t want to slip into problems outside of scope. For example, a mentor who is helping a protege with their career, probably doesn’t want to start hearing about marital problems or how frustrating the dating scene is these days. 

Mentors should always keep learning. Think about how you can improve as a mentor and develop competencies that will help you be the best mentor you can be. Journaling can be a good tool for keeping on top of this.

If you do have a successful mentorship program in your organization, your coordinator of that program deserves high praise. 

I believe mentorships are best handled organically and over time. A protege in need often gravitates to a mentor they admire and respect. The relationship builds from there, sometimes without anyone ever having to use words like “mentor” or “protege.” 

For the reasons above, it is exceedingly difficult to manufacture mentorship relationships. Because of the complexity, there is a certain level of liability to consider here. People who are not trained to be mentors can say and do things that could be damaging or hurtful to a protege. 

That is not to say effective formalized mentorship programs are impossible. If you do have a successful mentorship program in your organization, your coordinator of that program deserves high praise. When done right, mentorship programs can help establish a culture of fellowship and collegiality. 

Alternatively, leadership might consider establishing a culture of mentorship by teaching people how to be effective mentors and proteges (without the match-making service). Keep someone on staff trained on how to advise mentors in difficult situations. Creating this culture will help foster mentorship relationship organically. After all, mentorships often happen with people who are not in the same organization, so creating this culture that encourages mentorships rather than manages them, allows these relationships to form with a broader, more diverse population. 

When it works, mentorships can be a great experience. That said, they’re not for everyone, or sometimes people just are not in a good place to be in a mentorship at a given point in their lives. Mandating them or trying to manufacture them can backfire, especially in an already dysfunctional environment. As you consider mentorships for yourself or your organization, carefully consider the power of them—good and bad.

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