It Was Mentor Be

Once informal, seven in ten companies now offer mentor programs. But finding a good one is still a challenge.

Published: Nov 1, 2018

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In the 1996 Seinfeld episode "The Fatigues," Jerry becomes a reluctant mentor to a fellow comedian while Jerry's own girlfriend selects George as her unlikely mentor. Being Seinfeld, of course, Jerry and George are in it for selfish reasons, and in the end nothing is learned by anyone. (Seinfeld himself famously said of the show that there was to be no learning and no hugs.)

Though it probably wasn't the intention, the episode accurately portrayed many mentor-mentee relationships. Despite volumes of research on the positive effects of mentoring programs on employee retention and job performance, workplace culture, talent development, and more, many organizations and individuals fail to harness these benefits. The reason usually starts right at the outset, with mismatched relationships or unclear expectations. The sheer number of mentoring programs now available-from online mentorship networks and mentoring foundations to industry-related professional development groups and university alumni networks-is so overwhelming that talent ambitious enough to seek out a mentor often default to the corporate program, even if that isn't the best option. There are plenty of these: 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer some type of corporate mentorship program.

The most productive mentor-mentee relationships act like sparring partners.

But, according to Soulaima Gourani, a world-renowned speaker and corporate advisor selected by the World Economic Forum as one of its "Young Global Leaders," "a mentor should not be a coach from your HR department or a co-worker from your company. Nor should it be your supervisor or boss." Those are recipes for disaster (our words, not Gorani's). When seeking to identify and select a mentor, Gourani advises asking these questions: Who plays an active part in my personal development? Who has the courage to challenge me? Who supports and helps me? And, could this person become my mentor?

Hallie Crawford, founder of an eponymous certified career-coaching firm, says it's important to find a mentor who shares a similar vision of success or someone who has been on a similar career path to yours. Ideally, the person shares at least two of your top career values. "If you don't share the same big-picture vision with your mentor," she says, "that will create problems when [you ask] for advice on how to get to the next level."

But that doesn't mean your mentor needs to look like you or share your point of view. In fact, experts say the most productive mentor-mentee relationships are between people who act more like sparring partners than best friends. Gourani, for instance, says her male mentor helped get her "into the ‘old business (male) state of mind' about gaining more and better education and qualifications, and documenting my accomplishments and abilities with data and results." The Moroccan-born, Danish-raised Gourani adds, to drive home the diversity point, that her mentor also happens to be older than her and white. To be sure, older workers are increasingly seeking out younger workers, known as "reverse mentoring," to help upgrade their skills and evolve with the culture and nature of work today.

Equally as important as selecting the right mentor is to clearly define the expectations of a formal relationship. One mentee who asked not to be named, for instance, recalls a former mentor he was matched with through his company's internal program who canceled every single meeting they were scheduled to have over the duration of the program. While that's on the extreme, unreturned phone calls, violations of confidentiality, expectations around networking opportunities, and other factors are common pratfalls that derail mentor-mentee relationships.

"Outline a plan together and stick to it," says Crawford. "Decide together whether you will meet weekly or monthly, what communications outside of the meeting will look like, how you expect them to help you achieve your goals, and how your success can attest to them." The last part is particularly important-after all, don't forget that whoever agrees to be your mentor is putting their reputation on the line for you.

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