Assigned mentorship is dead. So what next?

The concept of “mentorship” is fairly important, insofar as young people come into workplaces unclear of the responsibilities and expectations and policies and politics (in part because their higher education experiences don’t prepare them for that), and having someone to help you navigate the waters is always fairly helpful. There are two essential problems to this, though:

  • A good mentorship is actually a relationship; it’s very hard to formally structure a relationship. The best ones develop organically.
  • The idea used to be 1-to-1, as in “single career confidants.” As Harvard Business profs have noted, that idea is as old as a three-martini lunch.

In reality, your networking and mentor-seeking opportunities now need to involve many people at many levels. That’s just reality, and it’s even more tied up with the whole millennial notion of “constant feedback loops.”

But if the old-school ideas about mentoring are dead, then what’s next? 

Let me start here with a story.

In graduate school, my University of Minnesota program had a mentoring program. Most people were paired locally (business leaders in Minneapolis), but my guy was from Chicago. We talked on the phone once and that was it; it was awful. At the 10-minute mark, I started playing MarioKart. He was basically speaking in either (a) generic terms or (b) buzzwords the entire time, saying stuff like, “Well, business is changing, as you know…” and not offering any real concrete advice. I tried to explain to him early in the call that I was a little different than a typical grad student — older, more work experience, etc. — and in this specific situation, that seemed to be holding me back. “Do you have any ideas on that? How I could make experience more of a selling point from this program?” Silence. Buzzword. 

If that had been my only mentor experience — i.e. if I had just relied on assigned mentorship — I’d be furious and annoyed and a whole host of other negative emotions. Instead, I sought other people out. I talked to people in different industries and made some relationships that way. Ultimately, I did get a job (one goal) but I also feel like I have a more robust professional network than I did even 1-2 years ago (second goal). Both are helpful, even if networking can get a little skewed here and there.

So basic point is: the idea of assigned mentorship is dead. Even 1-to-1 is dead. That doesn’t work.

So What Now?

1. Get out and network: You can do this even as an introvert (hell, you might be better as an introvert). Talk to people and develop relationships. They can evolve as mentors.

2. Attend events: It’s one of the easiest ways to get in front of people.

3. Publish on LinkedIn: Even if you don’t think of yourself as a great writer, find one of your friends who is and have him/her ghost-write for you. Talk to your friends about thoughts, make an outline, and have them do a rough draft. If you’re putting your thoughts out there and they resonate with some people, you’ll find opportunities for mentorship.

4. Go to events that turn the tables on traditional mentoring: Some are described here, such as events where the questions come first and the panelists discuss the questions after they’re out in the open.

5. Don’t give up: A mentoring relationship has to occur organically. It can’t be forced. If it’s forced, it won’t last. So if the first 2-3 (or 10-11) people you connect with aren’t right in this regard, don’t give up. Keep trying and meeting people and outreaching. It will work and you will develop helpful relationships, even if they’re not explicitly mentor-mentee.

6. E-Mail People With Context: People love to talk about themselves. That’s a core tenet of humanity as far as I’m concerned. A lot of times when I write something on this blog and link to a “thought leader” type person, I find their e-mail or LinkedIn and send them my article, referencing that I used their thoughts in crafting it. People almost automatically read those types of e-mails; you’re essentially telling someone “I just linked to you because I found you relevant.” That flatters people, and they read on. It can become a dialogue. Hell, sometimes it can lead to freelance. It’s all in the name of building relationships, which — whether or not it’s expressly a mentor deal — is the cornerstone of making headway at work.

One Worry I Have

Sometimes I do worry that this “busy busy busy” culture we’ve created for ourselves — where you basically need to be busy in order to justify your time/existence to others — is going to really create a drain on relationships and mentoring opportunities. I mean, think about it this way. People claim they can’t respect their employees because “there’s no time” to do that. If there’s no time for respect — a basic human condition — then how is there time for mentoring? And if mentoring completely erodes, how are people learning work norms? From their parents only? But aside from the age gap between a parent and a child, what if the industries are drastically different, etc?

This is made worse by the way a lot of millennials probably approach finding a mentor — they send e-mails that are akin to “Hey, I need a job, can u help me?” (One of my good friends was getting e-mails like that over the New Year’s holidays just now, actually.) People get busy with other stuff and especially tune those messages out, which further erodes the idea of mentoring as a concept.

When work norms are passed down improperly, then “big hope” ideas we have for the future of work — stuff like this — will be harder to get off the ground.

Ted Bauer

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