Politics & Society

What Is a Mentor?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 26, 2019 • 4 min read

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Howard Schultz Business Leadership

The word "mentor" has classical roots. It is based on Mentor, a character in Homer's Odyssey, who accepts a request from his friend, the hero Odysseus, to look after his son, Telemachus. Today, the idea of mentors and mentorship has largely moved outside of the home and into the workplace.

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What Is a Mentor?

A mentor is a person experienced in a particular field or business who shares the benefits of that experience with a younger person just coming up, called a mentee. The role of a mentor is usually to help mentees set up an action plan to achieve specific career goals, though a mentor can provide guidance in other areas of a mentee’s life as well.

Who Can Be a Mentor?

A mentor may be a supervisor or more experienced colleague. Or a mentor may be someone unrelated to the mentee's employment who takes an interest in the younger person's development.

Mentors are usually volunteers. They may have a long-standing relationship with a mentee, or may acquaint themselves with the mentee solely in the course of the mentoring relationship.

The common thread is the relationship itself: The right mentor acts as a guide and adviser who sticks with the mentee through a stage of the younger person's development process; the mentee is the apprentice eager to soak up the mentor's wisdom and advice.

The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring

It's easy to confuse a mentor with a trainer, a teacher, or a coach.

A mentor's job may include elements of all three, but his or her primary focus is to offer moral and emotional support, honest feedback, and the occasional pushback. Indeed, a great mentor may have no formal training at all. What's important is a mentor's experience and the ability to communicate it to the mentee.

A good mentor should:

  • Listen and act as a sounding board for the mentee's issues.
  • Question the mentee's plans, goals, and aspirations with respect.
  • Offer constructive criticism of the mentee's choices and behavior.
  • Provide emotional support and encouragement, particularly during trying times.
  • Model good behavior, ethics, and values pertinent to the mentee's field.
  • Push the mentee beyond the comfortable; challenging the mentee to excel.
  • Encourage independent thinking and decision-making.
  • Facilitate a mentee's success through networking, the provision of resources and active promotion of the mentee's career.

The mentor-mentee relationship is built on trust and honesty. It can be vulnerable to abuse if a mentor has ulterior motives that are not in the mentee's best interests.

A mentor should never:

  • Use the mentor relationship as validation of his own importance.
  • Assume power over the mentee in decision-making or problem-solving.
  • Force a mentee in a particular direction.
  • Take advantage of the imbalance in the power dynamic of the mentor-mentee relationship for personal gain or advantage.
  • Lose objectivity or display favoritism.
  • Undermine a mentee's self-esteem by attacking her character.

6 Reasons to Seek a Mentor

A mentor can fill gaps in your career development. Formal education, job training, work experience and casual advice will take you only so far.

The mentor-mentee relationship can offer context, perspective, a reality check, and real-time problem-solving that the other paths do not.

And there are tangible benefits to having a mentor.

  • He or she can make introductions to key people in a mentee's profession.
  • He or she can provide references.
  • He or she can point to resources that a mentee would not discover on his own.
  • He or she can alert a mentee to job prospects.
  • He or she can put in a good word with business owners in her network.
  • And, like a friend, he or she can inspire and be there for support when things don't go as planned and help a mentee strategize a way out.

How to Find a Good Mentor

When you’re looking for a mentor, be aware that you’re asking someone to assume a serious responsibility. Seek out people who have expertise in domains where you’d like to grow, and allow your relationship to evolve naturally.

When you do ask them to mentor you, define the obligation in a way that’s comfortable for both of you. For example, you may want to specify that you’re looking for a mentor who’s able to meet with you once a month.

What would you like to learn from a mentor? What would you like that relationship to look like? Write it down:

  • Three specific skills you’d like to learn from someone with more experience.
  • Three potential people you could approach for mentorship.
  • How much time would you feel comfortable asking from each person.

If you have three names, how will you reach out to them? If you can’t identify three potential mentors, how will you find them?

Once you’ve found a potential mentor, interview them. Research them. And don't forget to do a chemistry and gut check. A mentor-mentee relationship can last a long time, so it's important that a mentee feel good about the mentor from the outset.