Three Biggest Myths Around Mentorship Programs
How a new approach to mentorship can lead to more fruitful relationships
By Binney Wietlisbach
Over the past 30 years, it seems mentorship programs have been run largely the same way: through a workplace-sponsored program, a mentor and mentee are paired, meet once a week for 30 minutes over coffee to catch up, offer advice and maybe engage in some meaningful conversation, time permitting.
While these programs have undoubtedly helped employees across the U.S. grow as professionals and individuals, I feel there’s an opportunity for improvement. This is especially true for women, who often aren’t as comfortable taking the first step in forming organic mentor-mentee relationships. In fact, only 54% of women have access to senior leaders who act as mentors or informal sponsors in their career, according to a 2017 study. The number of women who have informal mentor/mentee relationships is even lower.
To many, mentorships have become overly formal, somewhat intimidating and, worse, a chore. But it wasn’t always like that. Did you know the first mentor was a character created by Homer in the Odyssey to help teach and guide Odysseus’ son?
Today, mentorships can (and should) take many different shapes, with mentors serving as trusted advisors, teachers, or even simply wise friends. To help reinvigorate Homer’s vision of mentors (wise individuals who help put others on the right path forward), let’s debunk a few of the largest myths around mentorship programs.
Myth 1: Mentorships must take place inside the workplace
Despite most mentorships taking place in a corporate setting, the basic guiding principles can apply to almost any situation in life where one’s experience is useful and welcome. Perhaps it’s a parent with older children offering guidance to a young mom on how to handle a difficult situation at home. Or a middle-aged daughter who cares for her ailing parents providing advice to someone whose parents just became ill. Spiritual mentorships can also bring immense value to those seeking a stronger connection to a higher power.
The bottom line is mentorships in the workplace are just the beginning. No matter where you find yourself in life – within the workplace or not — there’s likely someone out there who was once in a similar situation who can provide useful guidance as a mentor for you, or you could provide guidance to someone in your extended network.
Myth 2: Mentors always select their mentees
Many entry-level employees start their first jobs thinking if they show up on time, put their head down, and work hard, a person they admire will eventually select them as a mentee. But this fairy-tale scenario rarely plays out as smoothly in the real world, and young employees typically must do more to attract the attention of someone they admire.
Instead of sitting back and waiting to be paired, it’s perfectly acceptable for young women (and men alike) to take greater initiative in selecting their mentors. In some cases, picking up the phone and simply asking to spend time with someone may be the best approach when it comes to initiating this type of relationship.
While this may sound intimidating, mentees might be surprised to learn just how welcoming others are to this approach. In fact, most potential mentors may even be impressed with this initiative, which can go a long way in starting the relationship on the right foot.
Myth 3: Mentorships must be systemized, formulaic relationships
The best mentorships are those that develop organically. Too often mentors and mentees meet merely to check off a box each month. In reality, the best mentorships may follow a schedule, routine, or any unwritten formula that works best for both the mentor and mentee. Dictating the frequency in which you meet, how much time you spend together, and what you discuss places unnecessary boundaries on how much the relationship can grow.
As opposed to setting a goal of meeting once a month, if in a work environment, you could encourage your mentee to undertake a particular project that pushes them outside their comfort zone. Guiding them through a particularly challenging task will present countless touch points to offer guidance, encouragement, and positive reinforcement throughout the process. This provides your mentee a safe environment to step outside of their comfort zone while simultaneously offering you a meaningful platform to interact with your mentee in a tangible, and ultimately more impactful, manner.
Overcoming the myths
The fight to overhaul mentorship programs is already building momentum. Some companies have implemented e-mentorship programs, which rely heavily on technological communications to break down geographical barriers. Other firms are putting reverse mentorships to use, where younger, technology-savvy individuals mentor more seasoned employees on how to adapt in a constantly-changing digital world. And in the non-working world, websites such as Meetup are introducing individuals to others with similar hobbies or life situations where they can share their experiences, either in person or via online communities.
While mentorship sounds like a formal word that must follow a formal process, by taking a more innovative approach to mentorship, we can create more gratifying and fulfilling relationships in all aspects of our lives. Doing so will require a concerted effort on both sides, but the result could produce stronger workforces and more tightknit communities across the globe.