The meaning of mentoring

LUCKY ARE THOSE who find the right mentor: There is much we cannot accomplish, in our lives or careers, in the absence of that rare and enriching encounter. But to build the right mentoring relationship, we must know what to aim for. Most importantly, a mentor must help the mentee find their own way in a learning journey, be that an entrepreneurial venture, a career path, a research project or any other endeavor that entails a quest and the ensuing need for direction. 

This unique type of relationship is often mistaken for more conventional ones. The mentor is distinct from the trusted friend, the rousing teacher, the influential coach, the caring boss or even the awe-inspiring guru. The concept’s trendiness reinforces such confusion: Some large companies now institutionalize staff mentoring programs as a tool for personal development. Synaps itself tends to abuse the term, labeling activities as mentoring when teaching or training would describe them just as well. 

True mentorship, on the other hand, offers benefits that other forms of guidance simply do not. Indeed, to be productive, mentoring should adhere to a relatively strict set of conditions and remain:

Circumscribed. Mentoring develops around a specific project the mentee initiates and intends to see through. As the mentee embarks on a journey full of travails, discoveries, and doubts, the mentor’s role is to observe and guide rather than direct the process. Such guidance only makes sense in relation to the mentee’s goals—delineated in a project of some sort. 

Nonbinding. Mentorship is a voluntarily exercise for both sides. The paid consultant, the demanding manager, the supportive companion or the authoritative leader will all struggle to perform as effective mentors, because the best mentoring relationships are founded solely upon a mutual intellectual interest in remaining engaged. 

Intermittent. The value of mentorship comes from spacing out encounters, helping strike a balance between autonomy and assistance. Both are essential to learning: Thus the mentee will make formative mistakes but receive enough guidance to ensure that the overall journey doesn’t go off-track. Depending on the project, meeting every few weeks or months should prove ample. Too many interactions will impair the mentee’s sense of initiative and diminish the mentor’s patience and pertinence.

Unpredictable. Mentorship is a creative process, through which we obtain unconventional input. It is indispensable, therefore, to build randomness into that relationship. A mentor who belongs, strictly speaking, to our line of business is less likely to suggest new resources, make improbable connections, and take us into unfamiliar terrain. The point is not to replicate someone else’s experience, but to find a style, set a course, or build a business of our own. Thus we will gain from our mentor’s ability to learn about, or at least intuit, novel approaches; ask open-ended questions that kick off our own thought process; and rise above our immediate needs—to keep a watchful eye on our learning journey as a whole. 

Benevolent. Ideally, the mentor will be altogether curious, kind, candid, competent, confident, and concerned—wishing genuine success for the mentee and their project. At the other extreme, a jaded and intimidating figure will not fit the bill. Indeed, mentorship is designed to foster intellectual risk-taking, providing space for the mentee to disclose hesitations, difficulties, and dead-ends. The mentor will make things easier by showing an eagerness to listen and learn more than lecture. 

Unequal. Mentorship does not, however, put both sides on the same footing. While unrelated to hierarchy, authority, formal credentials or even age, the mentee must still recognize and respect the mentor’s wisdom, at least instinctively, and follow advice often without knowing why. The most important part of their conversations may lie in hints and clues, references to look up, approaches to test, and ideas to mull over—all of which entail a form of deference and trust. The relationship is also unequal in that the mentee must tend to their mentor’s level of involvement, by making the interaction interesting enough to remain worthwhile. 

Ritualized. Over time meetings between mentor and mentee naturally tend to become convivial. But they must also retain elements of solemnity and purposefulness, or risk losing their raison d’etre. The mentee must have a stake in every discussion and will therefore request the appointments; set an agenda, even tacitly; prepare to share instincts, dilemmas, and outcomes as clearly as possible; and actively seek takeaways. There is a certain rhythm to such encounters, whereby the mentor’s interventions correspond to when the mentee’s needs become obvious enough to solicit timely advice. Through such rituals, the relationship will generate a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that is essential to its upkeep. 

Mentorship need not meet all these conditions, nor even carry that name: Some relationships follow this general pattern without ever explicitly referring to such formal categories as mentor and mentee. The more they share with this ideal-type, however, the better. 

Why bother with such constraints? Because mentorship offers assets that elude us otherwise. The most obvious is a “time out,” when we step out of our daily whirlwind of ideas and chores and have a focused discussion entirely aimed at taking stock. These exchanges thus serve as a fixed point in the midst of constantly shifting dynamics. Moreover, sympathetic yet thoughtful and unvarnished feedback is excruciatingly difficult to obtain, compared to the mix of hostility, hypocrisy, incomprehension, angst, praise, and love that more typically surrounds us. 

Pursuing a project, which inevitably locks us within a confined environment, often leads us to breathe our own air; mentorship opens a window and guarantees a regular flow of oxygen. Indeed it is structured to bring in, with a surprising degree of reliability, fresh ideas at the precise moment we need them. Part of this phenomenon can be attributed to the mentor, who is at the right distance to consider what may be missing in our approach. 

But the truth is that the mentor, however wise and attentive, rarely solves problems or provides answers. Rather, the interaction unlocks the mentee and helps trigger new thoughts that may only loosely connect to the actual discussion. That is the secret and beauty of mentoring: The mentor can truly take credit only for how much they reveal in others. 

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Illustration credit: Angel showing hell to Yudhisthira by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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