Demystifying Mentoring

By Amy Gallo
July 3, 2020

When people think of mentoring, they often think of an older executive counseling a young upstart. In that scenario, the senior leader advises the junior employee on his career, how to navigate the world of work and what he needs to do to get ahead.

But mentoring has changed a lot in the last few decades. Just as the notion of a 50-year linear career with a single company or in one industry is outdated, so is the idea that career advice must come from a wise old sage. The traditional mentor-mentee relationship is not necessarily a thing of the past, but it’s no longer the standard.

If you’re working with the old definition, you may be confused about how to get the advice you need. Below are four common myths about mentoring that might be holding you back; knowing the truth about them can help you figure out who to turn to and how.

MYTH #1: YOU HAVE TO FIND ONE PERFECT MENTOR: It’s actually quite rare these days that people get through their career with only one mentor. In fact, many people have several advisers they turn to. “In all likelihood, you’d benefit from having more than one developer,” says Kathy E. Kram, a professor emeritus at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who prefers the term “developmental network” to mentor.

MYTH #2: MENTORING IS A FORMAL LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP: Because people change jobs and careers more often, a long-term advising relationship may be unrealistic and unnecessary. “Mentoring can be a one-hour mentoring session. We don’t have to escalate it to a six-month or yearlong event,” says Karie Willyerd, the chief learning officer for Visa. Instead of focusing on the long term, think of mentoring as something you access when you need it.

MYTH #3: MENTORING IS FOR JUNIOR PEOPLE: Many people assume that they need a mentor only when they’re first starting out in their careers. “There are lots of points in a corporate career when you need a mentor,” says Jeanne Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace. Though you shouldn’t wait for them to come up, transitions are a particularly good time to seek out a mentor.

MYTH #4: MENTORING IS SOMETHING MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE DO OUT OF THE GOODNESS OF THEIR HEARTS: “It can be an honor to ask someone to be a mentor,” says Willyerd. But the respect isn’t the only reason people agree to help. Mentoring should be useful to both parties involved. Before seeking out a mentor, think about what you have to offer, and then be clear with your prospective adviser about what’s in it for them.

So, do you need mentoring? “The place to start is with self-assessment and finding out what are the challenges in front of you right now and why. Then ask yourself, do you have the relational resources to handle those challenges?” says Kram. If the answer is no, it may be time to seek out a mentor, or several. The key is to find the right kind of advice from the right person at the right time.

Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.



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