Early in my career, mentorship was not an integral developmental activity for me. What I initially expected – mentors to approach me to establish formal, long-term relationships – did not in fact happen. I quickly found that work demands and the professional culture norm of busyness often prevented that happening for me as well as most others around me. But, I admit, I held a narrow view of what mentorship was back then, which led to the “six faces of mentorship” reflection shared a few weeks ago.
However, short of that, the mentoring I did engage in back then was completely driven by me. I had to own all the developmental value of the discussions, to direct all topics of conversation, bring my already-defined goals, and guide conversations through prepared questions. Otherwise, in the absence of those, there was little depth to the mentoring conversations I was able to have.
Then, a significant mentor entered my life. And, when I asked for feedback from him recently, he simply stated, “Josh, you seem to engage in a lot of unstructured mentoring, which is great. But I think you need to consider structured mentoring too. It is important and so needed right now.” My response was…no response. Yes, he was right. But his comment actually dismantled my entire conceptualization of mentorship in two short sentences. Because that is what I was exposed to early in my career and never shown otherwise, I viewed mentorship as this mentee-driven relationship. As a mentor, I would always give my time, engage in long and in-depth conversations, and come alongside junior leaders that I cared deeply for through their needed growth. But that was the issue – all that required the mentee to initiate the conversation, to guide it, and own it. In a mere couple of seconds following my own mentor’s feedback, I realized I had been a lazy mentor over the last few years and that I still have a lot to learn about mentoring.
Since that feedback, I have begun to redesign my approach to being a mentor and how I manage my various mentoring relationships, one-on-one and group relationships alike. I believe the distinction of structured vs. unstructured mentorship is an important one to understand and act on – for you as well as for me.
Distinguishing Structured vs. Unstructured Mentoring
My approach toward mentoring over the last two years, while I believed I was “championing” mentoring, was strictly unstructured. Though I built and maintained quality relationships with junior leaders within my sphere of influence, if they ever wanted to engage in focused mentoring, they had to reach out to me and ask to meet. I was careful to be approachable and give my time, but the responsibility to create opportunities for mentoring conversations fell solely on them. And, when we did meet, beyond me asking initial questions of pleasantry and relationship building, our conversations were strictly guided by their agenda of what was on their mind. Through this approach, nearly the entirety of the mentoring burden rested on the junior leader’s (the mentee’s) shoulders.
Structured mentoring, however, justly calls for considerably more effort and responsibility from the mentor. The relationship follows a more formal and (naturally) structured approach to learning. The mentor, from their added experience, recognizes that the mentee may not know or be aware of all the matters relevant to their continued growth; there are going to be topics, issues, or perspectives that the mentee simply is not aware of or know anything about. Similar to established models like the Johari Window or former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unkowns,” there will be things about the world and about themselves that mentees know they don’t know, as well as things they don’t know that they are not even aware of; this is more easily modeled as a 2×2 grid.
Thus, the mentor compliments the mentee, who still contributes to the relationship by bringing their own discussion agenda, with some measure of an established curriculum, though I use that term loosely. A structured approach from the mentor can take a variety of paths based on the relationship:
- The mentor can guide the mentee in setting goals for growth, a plan of action to progress toward them together, and use meetings to discuss the progress. The mentor can also bring in new information to help the mentee through the process.
- Mentors can place a greater focus on education through the relationship, using meetings to introduce new topics to the mentee(s) that are important for their future growth and improving their knowledge on those matters (the unknown spaces in the grid referenced above).
- The relationship can concentrate on the mentee’s skill growth, working with the mentor to develop a particular skill through routine practice. Using structured mentoring for skill development can include things like writing or public speaking skills programs, where the mentor guides the mentee through learning and practice in developing that specific skill.
Why Structured Mentoring Matters
Following the feedback comment that my mentor offered me that I described above, he shared an insightful perspective that continues to sit heavy with me today. I (and he) believe there is a deep, enduring need for leaders to take up the mantle of mentorship for our young new generation of leaders – especially through structured mentoring.
Only 37% of working professionals reported having a mentor in 2021. Only 57% of Army Service members report having a mentor. Yet, mentoring consistently is recognized as the most developmentally impactful activity. I lament over the now all-too-common norm of leaders not investing in structured mentoring under the banners of lack of time or busyness. Many are happy to respond, be available, and help junior leaders as long as the mentee puts forth all the work to create meeting opportunities and guide the discussions – just like I did these last two years. As a result, while mentors feel like they are pouring into junior leaders in significant ways, mentees are left feeling like burdens – that taking senior leaders’ time for mentoring is a sacrifice for the mentor – further adding to the already extensive barriers to successful and effective mentoring across our organizations.
And so, the compounding consequences of this lack of structured mentoring investment across our organizations are isolated, uninspired, and uninformed junior leaders being tossed back and forth by the waves of life and work with little purpose, direction, or feeling like they have a place to turn to for help. Our junior leaders are not being guided by caring and experienced mentors helping them to think about their future, help them frame that future through education, and ultimately map a path toward their desired success. Equally as bad are leaders with a warped sense of mentoring, sending signals of “look at all my success; do what I did to achieve the same level of success yourself” to junior leaders.
We need leaders who actually champion mentorship. Unstructured mentorship is helpful, it is an important start, and it matters. But that alone is not maximizing the developmental impact of mentoring, and our junior leaders and our organizations are suffering because of it.
I challenge you to consider what structured mentoring can (and should) look like in your leadership and work. Are you like me and see a need and an opportunity where you can capitalize on structured mentorship? I encourage you to pick up the mantle of this heavy, but absolutely necessary approach to mentoring today.
Considerations for Your Mentoring Relationships
Well, following that mini manifesto, now what? Great question.
To end, I want to offer a few thoughts and questions to consider as you move forward with your mentoring relationships – in whatever form they end up taking – in ways that are both impactful and sustainable.
- Not all mentoring relationships need to be structured. Read that again. While I aim to make the case for structured mentoring, more does not necessarily mean better. If you invest in multiple mentoring relationships, expecting all of them to be fully structured is not realistic or sustainable. So, think through what is feasible for you, what will achieve the greatest impact possible, and what is in line with your authentic approaches. I believe your structured mentoring relationships should be small – both in the quantity of relationships and how many mentees are involved, if in a group setting.
- What is the scope of your structured mentorship? What boundaries should be in place? Structured mentoring should center around a defined goal(s) or areas of focus, like writing and speaking mentioned above. A mentor cannot be all things and do all things for their mentees. Create shared clarity and expectations about what the relationship will (and will not) achieve.
- Prescribing your structured mentoring vs. co-creating it with your mentee. To what level do you need to prescribe goals and/or areas of emphasis within the relationship vs. co-creating them together with the mentee? Ensure you balance the need for input from all members in the relationship while also recognizing they may not know and see everything that is important due to their limited experience.
- What does structured mentoring look like for long distance or less regular relationships? Co-creating the relationship’s norms and expectations can help clarify them for everyone and ensure they are all aligned.
- Are there time and location boundaries to your mentoring relationships? A common frustration to mentoring relationships are challenges to meeting logistics – the times, places, and conditions that can and cannot work. When establishing “contractual” foundations to the relationship, both members need to surface and synchronize these restrictions to prevent resentment or disappointment from festering within the relationship.
I hope this take on structured mentoring encourages you to thoughtfully reconsider how you design your mentoring relationships, like it has for me, and equips you to enter into more deliberate mentoring opportunities to ultimately engage our younger generations of leaders who absolutely deserve it.
Thanks for your continued leadership and investment in others. Lead…and mentor…well, friends.
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