In Homer’s classic tale, King Odysseus leaves on a quest, placing his son, Telecachus, in the capable hands of Mentor. As the boy grows, Mentor provides guidance on a variety of topics, often on things the boy could never ask, or discuss with his father. As a result of this ancient legend, a modern day leadership skill was created, mentoring.
Mentoring in today’s age means a person with greater experience guides a person of lesser experience. Like Mentor in the story, the guide is trusted but not someone the follower answers to, like a parent or boss. This misconception about mentorship results in potential proteges to regard appointed mentors with suspicion, reducing their growth.
Organizations encourage supervisors to mentor their direct reports, however, the best mentoring relationships happen outside supervisory channels. One of the reasons Telemachus was able to confide more in Mentor than his father was simple; Mentor was not his father. Likewise, employees get more out of this developmental relationship with someone not in a position to judge and evaluate performance, mentees execute new practices and fail.
Just because mentoring relationships occur outside the supervisory channel does not mean organizations cannot implement mentoring programs. Instead, they pair a protégé with someone who will not have a negative impact on employment for failing. Organizations accomplish this by aligning mentees with a mentor in a different department. It is vital that the mentor accomplished similar tasks as the person seeking a mentor.
There are times a mentoring relationship could occur in a supervisory chain. An example is a C-Suite executive mentoring a front line supervisor with several layers between them. After all, the mentee may not be directly supervised by the Vice President of Marketing, but if his boss is, then the relationship will be viewed suspiciously by the person in the middle.
The relationship between the protégé and mentor should be voluntary, even in a work situation. A person may be directed to participate in a mentoring program, but both parties should have a say in the relationship to achieve best results. Many times others understand the need for a mentor when the program is explained well. Some people still participate unwillingly. A good mentor can bring positive change to reluctant mentees. Sadly, some still fail to see the opportunity mentoring offers, reducing the effectiveness of the program.
Mentoring relationships are voluntary. The terms of the relationship can be negotiated. The first meeting should establish the terms of the mentoring relationship. Both parties agree
- how long the relationship will last,
- how often meetings will occur,
- boundaries expected by both,
- how to deal with issues between meetings, and
- handling confidentiality concerns.
In some workplace directed programs, some of these terms may be dictated.
It is nice to create a new friend in the mentoring process, but the purpose of the relationship is to help the protégé achieve a particular goal. Therefore, it is important for the guide and the person seeking a guide to understand what to look for in the other. Both the potential protégé and mentor should evaluate if the other has the skills to fulfill their role.
A mentor is only a trusted guide if they have done something similar as the protégé seeks to accomplish. Potential mentors should honestly assess their ability to dedicate the time & effort required to help guide the protégé. Determine if the mentor previously demonstrated the capacity to help others grow and learn, and accept that as they guide the protégé, they also learn and grow. Has the person shared experiences with others that helped them grow or avoid mistakes? The more skills possessed by the mentor in each area improves success rates.
Selecting the right person to mentor you is important. What proof exists demonstrating the protégé is committed to learning and achieving their goal? As a protégé, clearly articulate what help you seek from your potential mentor. Good mentees ask good questions about feedback provided by mentors. They complete tasks as promised. They show up at meetings ready to address the issues on the agenda, and they show up on time, whether it is a phone call, a video meeting, or emailing a report for review.
Mentors and proteges should seek these qualities in the other. Not every mentor – protege relationship works. Understanding this allows each person to know they can walk away on good terms. You may need that person in the future.
Process of Mentoring
Use the opening meeting to get to know each other, negotiate the terms of the relationship, and identify the goal of the relationship. Use this meeting to identify how each person is accountable to the other; wait, you mean the mentor is responsible to the protégé? Yes! If the mentor promises to provide something, they are accountable to the protégé to provide that resource. Figure out when future meetings will occur and how frequently you will meet. Most importantly, identify the conditions that signal the end of the mentoring relationship.
I suggested a few times that this relationship is about the goal, implying your mentor is a stranger. That is not always true. During my studies in the U. S. Army Sergeants Major Course, I had two mentors. The first retired halfway through my attendance. I had relationships with both of them before starting the course. I still have a social relationship with both of them, years after completing the course. Our mentoring relationship ended when I graduated, but not our person relationship.
There are many ways people can meet today. If possible, to meet face-to-face. You can use technology, just remember, relationships are better in person. Emails, video and voice calls, and in-person meetings are all good ways to check in and follow up on progress. Timing depends on the needs of the protégé and the availability of the mentor. Always follow up. Schedule your next meeting before ending the current meeting.
Closing mentoring relationship
Close the relationship when you achieve your goal. If you select a new goal and wish to re-establish a mentoring relationship with your current mentor, ask. If you are the mentor, be clear when you are done providing guidance to your protégé. Failing to do so ensures they will continue to think you are.
Mentor was a trusted guide for Telecachus. He set an example of how those with more experience can guide those with less experience. Ideally, mentoring relationships occur outside the organization’s supervisory channel. This allows the protégé to confess errors without fear of retribution. Mentoring relationships are voluntary. They have a beginning, middle, and end. Either party may terminate the relationship even before the protégé accomplishes his goal. The mentor and mentee agree how the relationship will work, the timeline to accomplish the goal, frequency of meetings, how each is accountable to the other, and the conditions that signal the goal is accomplishment, ending the mentoring relationship. Anyone seeking to accomplish tough things should have a mentor. Likewise, make yourself available to those seeking a trusted guide to success. Today, start the process to find a mentor, and someone to mentor. It is a great way to learn from others in both roles and is an important leadership skill.
- Abbajay, M. (2019). Mentoring Matters: Three Essential Elements Of Success. Forbes (on-line edition). Retrieved from forbes.com on 11/28/22.
- Doby, J. (2022). Task force Spartan mentorship network. Task Force Spartan. Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
- James, F. (2016). Becoming a mentor. Leadership Development Workshop at New Hampshire National Guard.
- Martin, T. (2022) (CG). Developing leaders; FM 6-22. Headquarters, Department of the Army. Washington, DC