A Guide to Understanding the Role of a Mentor

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Serving as a mentor brings many challenges and rewards, with the best mentors working to shape their mentees into other leaders, rather than just good followers. If done well, the long-term impact of mentoring can offer life- and career-changing benefits to both parties. 

Mentoring and Coaching: Similar but Not the Same

The terms mentoring and coaching often get used interchangeably, which misleads the audience. While similar in their support of someone's development, they involve very different disciplines in practice. 

Mentoring consists of a long-term relationship focused on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. The mentor becomes a source of wisdom, teaching, and support, but not someone who observes and advises on specific actions or behavioral changes in daily work. 

Coaching typically involves a relationship of finite duration, with a focus on strengthening or eliminating specific behaviors in the here and now. Coaches help professionals correct behaviors that detract from their performance or strengthen those that support stronger performance around a given set of activities. 

Both mentoring and coaching offer incredibly valuable developmental support. However, one offers high-level guidance for long-term development, while the other helps provide more immediate improvement in targeted areas.

History and Definition

A character in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey could be called the original mentor. When Odysseus, King of Ithaca went to fight in the Trojan War, he entrusted the care of his kingdom to Mentor. Mentor served as the teacher and overseer of Odysseus' son, Telemachus.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a mentor as "a trusted counselor or guide." Other sources expand on that definition by suggesting that a mentor is someone who helps you with your career, specific work projects or general life advice out of the goodness of his or her heart.

Why Seek Out a Mentor?

Suppose a talented individual lands a sales job, and gains a senior sales executive as her mentor. The senior executive might guide her in her development as a leader, a strategist and a complete business professional.

The mentor might not exactly instruct her or provide on-the-spot coaching or training. Instead, he will challenge her and encourage her to think through issues and approaches by asking difficult-to-answer questions and serve as a source of wisdom when needed. The relationship as mentor and mentee ends after the woman changes companies, but the senior executive's impact carries through in her work throughout the rest of her career. 

Many people attribute part of their professional growth to the guidance of a patient mentor who challenged them to think differently and open their eyes and mind to different perspectives. While each of us develops at our own pace, this type of influence can have many positive and lasting effects. 

A mentor becomes a personal advocate for you, not so much in the public setting, but rather in your work life. Many organizations recognize the power of effective mentoring and have established programs to help younger professionals identify and gain support from more experienced professional in this format. 

What a Mentor Does for You:

  • Takes a long-range view on your growth and development.
  • Helps you see the destination but does not give you the detailed map to get there.
  • Offers encouragement and cheerleading, but not "how to" advice.

A Mentor Does Not:

  • Serve as a coach as explained above. 
  • Function as an advocate of yours in the organizational environment such as your boss would; the relationship is more informal. 
  • Tell you how to do things.
  • Support you on transactional, short-term problems.
  • Serve as a counselor or therapist. 

Eight Ideas to Help You Succeed With a Mentor:

Understanding the role of the mentor makes a critical starting point for success in this relationship. Additional requirements include:

  1. Investing your time in seeking out a mentor with whom you feel a natural fit.
  2. Sharing your goals and fears openly.
  3. Not expecting the mentor to solve your short-term problems or do the work for you.
  4. Not expecting specific advice. 
  5. Sharing where you are struggling or failing. 
  6. Listening carefully and then researching and applying the mentor's guidance.
  7. Showing that you value the mentor's support. 
  8. Not abusing the relationship by expecting political support in the organization. 

The Bottom Line:

A mentor can make a real difference in your career and life. Come to the relationship with realistic expectations about the role and a willingness to work hard. The impact of a mentor's guidance and wisdom now may not be felt for some years to come, but you will realize its positive impact over time and go on to become a mentor to others.