(adapted from Demystifying Mentoring by Amy Gallo, HBR)
Mentoring has changed a lot in the last few decades. Just as the notion of a 50-year linear career with a single company or in one industry is outdated, so is the idea that career advice must come from a wise old sage. The traditional mentor-mentee relationship is not necessarily a thing of the past, but it's no longer the standard. Now, there are many ways to get the information and guidance you need.
While the concept of mentoring has changed, the need for career counseling has not. In fact, because most careers take numerous twists and turns in today's world, it's required more than ever. "When I first started studying mentoring in the 1970s it was a much more stable world. There is a lot of chaos in the world of work," says Kathy E. Kram, the Shipley Professor in Management at the Boston University School of Management and author of Mentoring at Work. While mentoring has morphed, our collective thinking on it has not and many held-over myths still prevail. "There are many ways to define mentoring," says Jeanne Meister, a Founding Partner of Future Workplace and co-author of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop & Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today. If you are working with the old definition, you may be confused about how to get the advice you need. Below are four myths: knowing the truth about them can help you figure out who to turn to and how.
Myth #1: You have to find one perfect mentor
It's actually quite rare these days that people get through their career with only one mentor. In fact, many people have several advisors. Your "developmental network" is that handful of people who you can go to for advice and who you trust to have your best interests in mind, this network can be as large or small as you want, and it may even include your spouse or partner. Sometimes it can be helpful to get a variety of perspectives on an issue you are facing. "It's not uncommon for people to have many, many mentors," says Willyerd, former CLO of Sun Microsystems and co-founder of Future Workplace.
Myth #2: Mentoring is a formal long-term relationship
Because the world moves fast and people change jobs and careers more often, a long-term advising relationship may be unrealistic and unnecessary. Instead of focusing on the long term, think of mentoring as something you access when you need it. It may not be big agenda items that you're grappling with. You don't need to wait until you have some big thing in your career.
Of course, the advice and guidance may be richer and more relevant if it comes from someone who knows you well and understands your goals. You still need to build relationships so that when you require advice, you have the connections in place.
Myth #3: Mentoring is for junior people
Many people assume that they only need a mentor when they are first starting out in their careers. Now we understand that people at every stage of their careers benefit from this kind of assistance. In their book, The 2020 Workplace, Meister and Willyerd talk about reverse mentoring in which a more junior person advises a senior person.
The reality is "There are lots of points in a corporate career when you need a mentor," says Meister. Though you shouldn't wait for them to come up, transitions are a particularly good time to seek out a mentor. Whether you are making a career change, taking on a new role, or contemplating leaving a job, advice from someone who has done it before can be helpful. "You may need a mentor when the environment around you is changing rapidly and you haven't had a chance to keep up with the changes," says Meister. "Or as you try to navigate the complexities of your organization," adds Willyerd.
Myth #4: Mentoring is something more experienced people do out of the goodness of their hearts
"It can be an honor to ask someone to be a mentor," says Willyerd. But the respect isn't the only reason people agree to help. Mentoring should be useful to both parties involved. Before seeking out a mentor, think about what you have to offer him. Can you provide a unique perspective on the organization or his role? Do you bring valuable outside information that might help her be successful in her job? Whatever it is, be sure that you are clear with your prospective advisor about what's in it for him. This does not have to be a direct barter. Even the promise of future help, if and when it's needed, can be enough to convince a mentor to give up her time and energy.