In the ‘old days’ it was obvious what you wanted a mentor for – to help you up the corporate ladder. Being associated with a more powerful person who could open doors, drop your name into conversations and position you for opportunities was a key element in many stories of those who rose to the top. Then, notions of equality entered the discussion with the recognition that those powerful people were more likely to be male and were more likely to offer that sponsorship to younger men who they saw mirroring them in style, background and ambition. Mentoring moved from sponsorship to development or rather development with the hope of sponsorship. Informal mentoring where a senior figure spotted younger talent and offered a helping hand has largely been replaced by formal mentoring schemes, with selection and matching, time frames and agreed goals. Or finding a mentor is regarded as the responsibility of the individual, and a test of their career pro-activity. Alongside this the aims of mentoring have become more diverse. The original Mentor was a wise old counsellor offering his wisdom to help young Telemachus deal with the challenges of life, because his father Odysseus was away during his formative years. Today a mentor can be anything from an advice giver to a teacher to a coach. The question that now has to be asked is what sort of mentor do you need?
Needs come in two forms: the sort of help that is needed and the sort of mentor who you will work best with.
Michael Heath an expert on mentoring suggests there are 4 varieties of mentoring that are of value.
- The Buddy mentor who can teach the things that are essential to the transition into a new organisation or role. That person need not be senior or older, but they are good at understanding how the place works. They are often of most value in the first few months, when they provide nuggets of information on how to do things, who not to upset, how to work best with your boss. They transmit information.
- The Expert mentor who can help you deliver on your work more quickly because of their expertise. This may be someone who is more senior in your team, or at least is further down the line in terms of their experience. You can take your concerns to them and they will give you an answer as to how something should be done. They save you the work of figuring it out yourself, by teaching you.
- The Attached mentor is someone who can help you do the thinking for yourself within your area of work. They have more expertise than you but they use that expertise to help you figure out how to approach a project or a piece of work. They do not assume you will do it their way, so they use their skill to ask you questions that will enable you to think it through for yourself. They are attached to the area of subject knowledge, but they are not attached to there being only one answer. They will offer advice but only when it is clear you can’t find your own solution.
- The Detached mentor does not offer expertise, and may know little of the content of your work, but they are open to your bringing concerns regarding yourself, your work or career to the table. They are able to help you think the issue through from multiple perspectives, without having any attachment to the answer you come up with, other than that it works. They use their experience to challenge and to help the other person widen their perspective and explore options. They are facilitators of your thinking.
Getting the right mentor is about acknowledging what you need at that moment. Someone struggling to understand how to get things done in a very different culture from their previous employer, will gain more at the start from a Buddy mentor than a Detached mentor. Someone who is losing motivation in their work will value the safety of being able to say and think things they would not share with their boss that a Detached mentor can offer. Someone who is starting to become more independent in their work role will welcome an Attached mentor rather than the Expert.
Getting it right is more than looking at the content of the work, it is also about looking at the style of the mentor, and how it fits with your own. It is about being honest about your own preferences and your desire for support or challenge. A mentor who is like you is will make you feel comfortable. If you are a highly analytical, concrete thinker than a mirror version of yourself offers a sense of ease. Similarly, if you are a highly relational, intuitive thinker then finding a colleague who offers that match will feel safe. However, it may not be what will best help you develop, particularly if you are seeking space to explore issues about the limitations of your existing approach, your relationship with your boss, your management of your team or how to develop for the next role. Seeking a mentor who will mismatch is often a powerful way of developing. They will notice things you don’t notice about yourself. They will ask questions you don’t ask yourself. They will create some discomfort, and it is from discomfort that change is stimulated.
Whether your employer offers you a mentor, or you decide to find one yourself, the keys to success are the same: be clear on what you want the mentor for, and be willing to challenge yourself in the service of your development.