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What Exactly Is Mentoring?

Originally published 1/25/2011. Most recent update 1/22/2022

Mentoring is the act of helping someone learn.

Mentoring is one type of supportive relationship in your overall developmental network: the group of people you turn to and rely on for input, advice and ideas to help you along the way. It is a relationship that you have with a person who is interested in your development and yet does not personally stand to gain anything other than the satisfaction of helping you on your path to success. 

Many ideas and perspectives exist about optimal mentoring approaches. In my experience the best mentoring happens when partners pay as much attention to the quality of the relationship as they do the outcomes, embracing two-way learning where both partners feel comfortable asking for input along with giving and receiving feedback.

Relational mentoring is a reciprocal, two-way learning relationship based on the concept of mutual influence described as 'power-with' versus 'power-over'.

Mentoring in Brief 

  • A two-way, supportive learning relationship – the act of helping each other learn
  • Safe place to bounce ideas and obtain objective advice 
  • Focus on maximizing potential
  • Help navigating through a complex situation, goal or organization
  • No personal agendas in the relationship – mentee or mentor
  • Focus on the means not just the end 
  • Leadership development
  • Opportunity to influence culture change in an organization or community 

Benefits of Mentoring

Over the years I’ve noticed that both mentees and mentors list many of the same benefits. You have as much to gain from being a mentor as a mentee.

  • Trusted ally and confidant
  • Sounding board to test ideas
  • Accelerate learning
  • Assistance with problem solving
  • A safe place to receive objective feedback
  • Ideas for how to get things done
  • Someone to advocate for you
  • Increase confidence
  • Diversify network
  • Feelings of belonging – someone to relate to your experience
  • Improved skills of managing in a diverse environment
  • More varied perspective – improve creativity and innovation
  • Bigger picture view – expand knowledge
  • More success in your current role/task – better results faster

Mentors also cite the opportunity to give back by sharing what they’ve learned as a major motivator for wanting to be a mentor.

Informal vs. Formal Mentoring Relationships

Most often the mentors in our lives show up through the connections we make in our  professional and personal lives. We start a conversation, feel a sense of camaraderie, are comfortable asking questions and an informal mentoring relationship develops. 'Who you know' can be an inequitable advantage depending on your privilege associated with your social identities such as gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, age, and so on. Some people don’t  have access to the people that they’d like to lean on for advice and guidance.

Formal mentoring programs offer the opportunity to connect with someone outside your usual circle of connections. Signing up for a custom program to be matched with a person who can help you in your business, career, volunteer work and even leisure activities such as sports enables you to gain input from a wider range of people that might be outside your current network of contacts, colleagues and friends.

It’s About Learning

Mentoring exists in many configurations – peer-to-peer, groups, co-mentoring – as well as a traditional one-to-one relationship where a more experienced mentor assists a mentee in their area of interest. The common denominator of all forms of mentoring is they are focused on learning.

Mentoring with staying power focuses on the participants as learners, the relationship as the learning process, and the personal and operational learning goals as outcomes. 

Think about the mentoring relationships you've experienced.  How have they influenced your career and/or life?  What did you learn? Accomplish? What made the relationship work?

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