Mark Hillman, Ph.D.
The concept of mentoring has a long history, one that originates in Greek mythology. In Homer's Odyssey, Mentor was the teacher of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus.
Today, some 3500 years later, mentoring relationships are still valued. In many professions, mentors are believed to enhance, if not ensure, the professional development and success of talented newcomers.
If mentoring were only a means for aspiring young professionals to gain a career foothold or to be given a boost up the career ladder, the relationship would be a one-way street. Common experience tells us that one-sided relationships do not work as well as reciprocal relationships where there is an even exchange of some kind. In fact, mentoring relationships reach their fullest potential when they are reciprocal.
Erickson's description of the Eight Stages of Man sheds some light on the question:
"For the mentor, Erickson's seventh stage of 'generativity' adds further substance to the mentoring relationship. The desire that one's work and influence 'live on' is an important life goal. The nurturing and influencing of young adults and the facilitation of their efforts to form and live out their hopes and wishes can fulfill the generative needs of the mentor." (Rodriquez, et.al., 1984)
Thus, among the strongest and most compelling reasons for serving as a mentor may be the desire to fulfill one's own need to contribute to the growth, development and wish fulfillment of an aspiring professional. The act of mentoring allows one to repay, in some measure, the intrinsic benefits he or she has derived from the profession.
Mentoring relationships differ in an important way from other personal relationships because they are professional in nature. Mentors are responsible for conveying and upholding the standards, norms, and values of the profession. They are responsible for offering support and challenge to the recipient of their mentoring while the recipient strives to fulfill the profession's expectations.
Healthy mentoring relationships are evolutionary rather than static in nature. They change because the purpose of the relationship is to enable the recipient to acquire new knowledge, skills, and standards of professional competence. The perceptions of both members of the relationship evolve as the mentee's performance evolves to new levels of competence under the mentor's guidance and support.
One way to view the evolutionary nature of mentoring relationships is to think in terms of stages of development.
The mentor and mentee become acquainted and informally clarify their common interests, shared values and professional goals. Occasionally, matchmakers who assign mentors to mentees can foresee "mentor marriages made in heaven." Taking time to become acquainted with one another's interests, values and goals seems to help mentoring relationships gain a better start than when such activity is given low priority.
The mentor and mentee communicate initial expectations and agree upon some common procedures as a starting point. In a very few cases where a major disparity is found to exist, the pair can part company on a friendly basis before the actual mentoring and inevitable frustration begins.
Gradually, needs are fulfilled. Objectives are met. Professional growth takes place. New challenges are presented and achieved. This stage may last for months or years.
The mentor and mentee redefine their relationship as colleagues, peers or friends.
Importance of Matching
Historically, individuals who have desired to become mentors have looked over aspiring newcomers and have selected promising young mentees to nurture. Most of the time, these mentoring relationships work out very well. Occasionally, they do not, and the mentee moves on in search of another mentor, or the mentor seeks another mentee.
The ability to predict the combination of personal and professional qualities that attract individuals to one another in mentoring relationships is enhanced by understanding observable language. Dr. William Moulton Marston viewed people as behaving along two axes their actions tending to be active or passive depending on whether the individual viewed the environment as either antagonistic or favorable. By placing these axes at right angles, four quadrants were formed with each circumscribing a behavioral pattern:
Dominant Directors (D)
Interacting Socializers (I)
Steady Relators (S)
Cautious Thinkers (C)
Is Training Necessary?
Mentors can have a significant effect upon the professional development of aspiring young or mid-career adults. Whether a mentor's impact is positive or negative depends in large part upon how well informed and skilled the mentor is, and upon the mentor's commitment and availability. It seems only natural to ask: Is training to be a mentor really necessary? Research at the University of California, Irvine suggests that training is important to the success of mentoring relationships. The majority of mentors (80%) surveyed expressed the view that training would be helpful. Comments included:
"Where do mentors get the skills to work with others? Very few people are 'natural' mentors. Training would be valuable, especially to have others share what works for them."
"The personality for mentoring -- that nurturing personality -- comes naturally, but the nurturing quality becomes focused by training."
"Mentors need training so that they can feel more confident about helping others. They need to know how to help agents who need help but will not actively seek help."
A better way to understand the need for mentor training is to examine the difficulties that mentors encounter while fulfilling their roles. When asked, "What are the most difficult aspects of mentoring for you?" most mentors cited examples which illustrated the need for basic information and training:
"Making the initial contact and building trust. Sharing my ideas at first.I don't want to sound like a know-it-all even when I am asked for help."
"Overcoming my hesitation to tell (the mentee) that he/she is wrong and to suggest alternatives. I feel like I am offending him/her."
"Trying to explain (to the mentee) that his/her approach or close was too weak. I helped them revise it, but certain parts were still too awkward. When do you stop correcting and revising? When does helping become hurting?"
"Rejection. I offered help at his/her convenience but my help wasn't wanted .It's hard to help people."
"Working with someone for a whole year and then finding that he/she can't make it."
All of these responses suggest a need for basic information about mentoring relationships or for mentor training. The candid and sensitive responses of these mentors point to the value of some preparation for the role of mentor and the value of specific skills that allow mentors to feel confident and successful as they fulfill their expectations and goals as mentors.
Every mentor has a specific body of professional knowledge and skill to share. When most people think of mentoring, they think of experts sharing their knowledge with less experienced individuals in a profession. Sharing one's expertise is a large part of mentoring, but so is the communication of support, challenge, feelings and many other kinds of information.
The effectiveness of verbal and nonverbal communication is high on the list of important factors contributing to the success of mentoring relationships. Mentors have a special responsibility for effective communication because they are a primary source of information, support and challenge to the recipients of their mentoring. The essence is communication: of knowledge, of skills, of values, of attitudes and of expectations. Therefore, the quality of communication affects all that happens in the achievement of goals and objectives.
Mentors need to offer their mentees challenges that stimulate professional growth and cause them to stretch themselves past their current "comfort zone." Challenges lead to the development of new levels of expertise. When the amount of challenge is well matched to the mentee's readiness for growth, the tasks become motivating. Challenges that are not matched well with the individual's level of development can be overwhelming and create feelings of being unable to cope. Then, rather than producing growth, the challenge may lead to frustration, panic or feelings of failure.
It is important then for mentors to become sensitive to the growth needs of those to whom they mentor and attempt to offer optimal challenges for their mentees' professional development. Some mentors develop mentoring plans to help maintain optimal levels of challenge for the mentee. The primary function of a mentoring plan is to focus on the developmental nature of becoming a professional and to establish mileposts or benchmarks. These markers will guide and serve as reminders that the recipient is growing in knowledge and skill. Since the perceptions of both mentors and recipients alike change as mentoring evolves, mentoring plans help the observant mentor to keep one eye on the recipient's development and the other eye on his or her readiness for the next challenge.
Are there risks associated with mentoring? The answer is, "Relatively few." Fortunately, the major risks associated with mentoring can be avoided or reduced through knowledge and planning.
What are the risks and how can they be avoided or reduced? Four of the most commonly mentioned risks -- or fears of risks -- are identified below and illustrated by examples of comments often made by mentors and would-be mentors. Brief descriptions are offered:
Mismatch between mentor and mentee
Mentors express this fear with statements such as: "Our personal styles may clash. We may not be able to work together. I'm afraid I will overpower or threaten him. He has become too demanding and too dependent. Can she take honest, well-intentioned criticism?"
Threat to one's professional image
This concern is expressed by statements such as: "I may be misunderstood; he, she, or my colleagues may think I'm a know-it-all. If she fails to make the grade in spite of my mentoring, people may begin to wonder about my own competence. I could be responsible for his success or failure!"
Failure as a mentor
Mentors express this fear or concern with statements such as, "I might get in over my head. I'm trying to help, but maybe I'm hindering him. What works for me may not work for anyone else. Should I let her make mistakes that can be avoided so that she can profit from them?"
Competition or rivalry
Fear of competition or rivalry is evident in statements such as:
"She may be more talented than I am; can I handle professional jealousy?" "I have shared my best secrets and strategies with him and now he is surpassing me! How will his success affect my status, privilege or income?"
The development of a mentoring plan can increase the sense of personal control that both members of the relationship have or may need. Such plans can identify in a systematic way the expectations (e.g., times for regular meetings) and the topics or issues to be covered. A mentoring plan helps to remind everyone concerned that becoming a professional is a developmental process. And at the end of a year, both members can look back at the plan and recognize the mentee's growth.
Since childhood many of us have been reminded that "It is better to give than to receive." And, in many languages and cultures, the idea has been expressed that: "It is not what we give but what we share."
Both ideas capture an important aspect of mentoring: that many joys and benefits result from sharing one's expertise, one's time, and one's self. The most obvious of these joys comes in the form of appreciation that others express for mentoring assistance. A different kind of joy results when others value our expertise so much that they incorporate our ideas into their own thinking and behavior. And then, quite unexpectedly, still a third kind of joy emerges when, in the midst of sharing our expertise with others, we rediscover long-buried feelings of pride and accomplishment that were forgotten -- feelings that occurred when we first mastered our craft for ourselves. These are just a few of the joys of mentoring.