In her fantastic book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes a conversation she had with a woman on her team while serving as the COO at Facebook:
“I never used the word ‘mentor,’ but I invested a lot of time in her development.
So I was surprised one day when she stated flatly that she had ‘never had a mentor or anyone really looking out’ for her. I asked what a mentor meant to her.
She explained that it would be someone she spoke to for at least an hour every week.
I smiled, thinking, ‘that’s not a mentor—that’s a therapist.’”
2021 research conducted within the US Army reported that the overwhelming majority of Service members believe that mentorship is the most developmentally impactful activity, but that only 57% of them in fact have one or more mentors. That’s a problem, and likely not one unique to just the military.
There are many obstacles in all workplaces that pose a threat to effective mentorship, chief among them is a perceived lack of time. But Sandberg’s above story illuminates a different obstacle – people, prospective mentors and mentees alike, don’t understand mentorship basics and what it can look like. Many of us have too-narrow a view of mentorship.
This narrow view about mentorship and what we think “right looks like” prevents us from tapping into rich opportunities for development. And, perhaps, this calls into question the legitimacy of the Army research above; do these 43% of people who report not having a mentor simply fail to recognize the mentorship opportunities around them just because they look different than expected?
I share this because my personal journey towards mentorship was different as well. I spent the first seven years of my career disappointed I didn’t have any mentors. Was I not worthy of development? Did my leadership not see me as being worth an investment? I finally realized that the problem was not my superiors, rather it was my own expectations. I expected mentors to approach me, formally state they plan to become my mentor, and then set up some robust and consistent meeting schedule where they guide me through a structured plan. This sounds ideal – and for some it may be a reality – but mentorship can take on so many other forms, we just have to take the time to look for it.
The Different Faces of Mentorship
It took a leader who is an expert in mentorship, both by education and experience, to come alongside me a few years ago and teach me about the science and art of mentorship. Only then did I better understand the various ways we can engage in this impactful leader development exercise.
Part of my learning included realizing that there are different types of mentor relationships. Each one offers different benefits, has unique limitations, and is achieved based on the participating members’ available resources (notably time, energy, investment, etc.). Careful reflection has allowed me to identify six common faces of mentorship. They all look and feel different from one another, but they each leverage a reciprocal relationship for both (or all) participating members, focused chiefly on development.
- Micro-mentoring. A flash relationship that can last just one or several days or, possibly, even a few short hours. Think of opportunities like being able to spend 60 to 90-minutes with a senior leader in your organization or being paired with a colleague to engage in reflective discussions during a multi-day conference. Both are based on a relationship focused on development, just through a very narrow timeline. A lot can still be gained from these short windows of development, and often these interactions have impacts far beyond the short initial engagement.
- Short-term. A relationship that exists over a few weeks, months, or years within a particular context. This can apply within project teams where they work together for a set time as well as for organizations with rapid promotion models (like the military) where someone may serve in a position or team for one to three years. Mentorship relationships like these have a defined ending but provide a focused season of growth that can span weeks to a few years.
- Long-term. Long enduring relationships that regularly meet and may not have a known or intended end time. These likely remain through changing contexts, such as position promotions, transitions to different teams or organizations, or even major moves to different geographic locations. Long-term relationships tend to be what most people think of when they consider mentorship, and, as the article’s opening alluded to, many can feel devoid of mentors when their relationships do not reflect this temporal competent.
- Virtual. The power of technology and the normalized use of connecting people spurred by the COVID pandemic has drastically enabled virtual mentorship. I see two different options of virtual mentorship though. First is using technology, such as Zoom, for mentor pairs to meet, which can actually better enable long-term relationships despite environmental conditions changing. The second option includes mentees using technology, such as email or social media, to remain connected with mentors. Consider, for example, a junior employee who was mentored by their manager for years but was then promoted and moved to a different facility in a different city. The mentee can remain connected with their old manager and mentor by sending semi-routine update messages about life, work, and their growth (say annually or every few months). In-depth, structured development may not exist anymore, but the relationship remains, allowing the mentee to call on the mentor if ever needed in the future. Both options enable mentorship to venture into a more long-term relationship, though it may look different than what we might expect.
- Group. Mentoring does not have to be one-on-one. Mentors can engage with small groups of mentees to expand the spheres of learning, encourage members to learn from others and not just the mentor, and help champion a culture of mentorship within the organization. It’s important to understand appropriate span of control, however. Ratios greater than 1:7 or so may be pushing the boundaries of what is realistic for the mentor (which I have learned from experience) to provide quality developmental experiences for the mentees.
- Peer. Mentorship is most known as a relationship between someone with greater experience and one with lesser – a senior to junior effect. But I have several peers that I respect who might not have more experience than me but have different experiences as well as perspectives. The developmental impact of mentorship may also be achieved through intentional relationships with peers.
A Few Starting Guidelines
Managing differing expectations and keeping the mentoring relationship fruitful can be hard. And while lack of time and unrealistic mentee expectations serve as primary obstacles to effective mentorship, a third issue is a lack of mentor awareness (and confidence) in how they can add value to the relationship. Below are three simple guidelines to equip and encourage mentors in adding value to others.
- Set parameters for the relationship. Discuss key parameters to the relationship, such as when, where, and how often you will meet; what you will focus on or explore; and why. This ensures both members are on the same page about the details of the relationship and maintain accurate expectations.
- Set and maintain developmental goals. Using goals gives structure and focus to the development that occurs through the relationship. Mentors can incorporate goal setting by using the six components to successful goal setting as a place to start. Don’t forget to ask the mentee what they are hoping to get out of the relationship; their answer may surprise you and will certainly help guide your conversations.
- Attend to learning and the relationship. Simply building and maintaining a relationship absent of learning is not mentorship; it is getting casual coffee with a friend. But failing to establish a relationship among members is more toward coaching or even just teaching. The relationship leads mentees to feel heard, seen, connected, and valued. Learning and the relationship are essential to enact all the benefits of mentorship.
A Better Understanding of Mentorship
Mentorship can absolutely be the most developmentally impactful activity any of us engage in over our careers, both as a mentee and a mentor. The relationships help make sense of experiences; offer perspective for continued learning; and encourage growth through goal setting, feedback, and a little advice.
But both (or all) members must be clear and aligned to the dynamics of the relationship. Understanding that there can be different faces to mentorship open us up to many more developmental opportunities and relationships – no matter how long or short they are.
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