Want to know the definition of “mentor”? I looked it up.
Men·tor – ˈmenˌtôr,ˈmenˌtər/
an experienced and trusted adviser.
“he was her friend and mentor until his death in 1915”
synonyms: adviser, guide, guru, counselor, consultant; confidant(e)
“his political mentors”
advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone talking about being a mentor, getting a mentor, or just exploring the whole idea of mentorship. I’ve said this on many occasions, but I don’t think we all have the same meaning for a mentor. When I asked people what a mentor does, here’s what they said:
- Helps me get ahead in my career/advocates for me.
- Shares their expertise in a particular subject.
- Introduces me to people who can help me.
- Helps me work through challenges in my workplace.
- Advises me on how to maximise my career path.
- Is someone who can empathise with me when I need someone to listen.
- Someone who helps me figure out what I need to do to level up in my career.
I know I haven’t hit all of the examples and some you might not agree with some of them, but this is my point. I believe that the word “mentor” has become this catch-all descriptor for an advisor, sponsor, coach, therapist – I could keep going. When we don’t have clarity in our roles, bad things start to happen.
Think about it for a second, how many of you have been assigned a mentor, and it’s gone badly? How many of you have been assigned a mentee and it’s not been awesome? Yeah. Me too.
I recently reached out to some of my advisors and sponsors to ask them their opinion around the word mentor. One of them I think NAILED the problem. His response:
“Mentor” is overused and now meaningless. In the good old days before Twitter and Slack and 1099 employment, you had a mentor in the company so when they got promoted they took you with them. They gave some advice, bought you a martini at lunch and said “Hiya!” in the hallway. If you got in a jam, they would have a quiet word with one of their peers. The word was synonymous with “protector.” I had a mentor, and he got me promoted vs. getting laid off. His name was Peter* and he was way cool. He did not teach me a whole bunch, but he helped me along and spoke for me when heads were rolling. The head of finance at the same job was a guy named Mark*. He taught me a ton about capital expenditures, net present value and how to finance projects. Probably taught me more than anyone except Randall [his real name], who taught me the value of souffle. Was Mark a mentor? No. He was a smart guy who helped me out. When the layoffs happened, he probably put my name on the list. Peter took it off.
Peter = Mentor. Mark = Finance guy from whom I learned some great technique.
Having a mentor that is not in your company or proximity is just having another person giving advice. Should be called “advisor” – it’s what they are actually doing. If your advisor gets promoted, you are probably not going to benefit. If you get in a jam, the advisor can give advice. That’s about it. They advise.
Aristotle was a mentor. Joan, the VP of Accounting at Flipjack who has a coffee with you once a month, is either a colleague of a peer or an advisor of someone more senior.
I’m beyond lucky to have this person in my life. These types of commentary about work and the workplace are frequent our discussions. Here’s the kicker: this person was both a mentor (he put my name on good lists) and an advisor (he taught me tons).
You know what else was interesting? EVERY SINGLE MENTOR I reached out to had a different reaction to the word “mentor.” They all said they didn’t mentor me. I asked them all sorts of odd questions; they thought they were intriguing questions, so they answered them. Even for me, this was a surprise. I thought “mentor,” they thought “plucky, smart woman with interesting ideas.”
None accepted the mentor mantle.
The whole conversation makes me think. And the topic of my challenge to you, dear readers:
If you have a mentor (official or not) have you talked to them about their role in your life? Who do they think they are? How do they define mentorship?
Don’t you think it’s worth knowing?
PS. Want to read more about building a Team You? Check out more thoughts about mentorship.
*names changed to protect the innocent.