Mentor, coach or confidante – it can get a bit confusing with all these terms – is there a big difference in the relationships? On Monday, we discussed the role of the coach, today we will talk about the role of a mentor.

A mentor is someone who gives advice, counsel and direction on areas such as career advancement or other special interests. Their focus is to share their knowledge and experiences; helping to provide guidance from their own perspective. A mentor is different from a coach; they may not have access to assessment tools and special training for development. However, they do offer a personal touch to their relationship and often mentor because they choose and love to do it.

In the purest form, you probably are not going to go out and select a stranger to be your mentor and be successful. They are cultivated from relationships, either within or outside of your company. Mutual respect and trust are key relationship ingredients. They are strong proponents for individual development. They generally operate at the level you aspire to. It is also possible they reside in another function other than your career path, especially if they provide you insight on corporate politics.

Mentors Are Not Your Boss

I strongly recommend that your mentor is not your immediate boss. The types of conversations you have with a mentor are often personal and sensitive. You may want advice on how to work more effectively your co-workers, boss or career path. With a mentor, you should feel comfortable discussing career path options which may include leaving the organization. They may even suggest it, knowing that your goals are not compatible with the company’s assessment of your future career moves. Because of these kinds of conversations, a mentor should not be your boss.

If they are your mentor, the relationship’s risk profile increases and there is a higher likelihood your personal conversations will impact your performance ratings. It is a rare situation where this dynamic may work to your favor. It is prudent to avoid the risk, even if you think your mentor is the exception. If you are still considering your boss as a mentor, refer to Do You Have the Right Mentor?

Formal Mentor Programs

Some companies have begun to initiate formal programs in mentorship. In this type of situation, the company often facilitates the pairings of the mentor and mentee. There is usually a selection process for both participants, along with some formal training or guidelines on roles and expectations.

It is important to establish the intent of the program – is it for development, performance assessment or a grooming track for executives? If the intent is not clear, mentees may distrust the process. Address concerns with the mentee such as will they “fit” or respect their mentor and are their conversations confidential.

Informal Mentor Relationships

Are you currently working with a mentor? How do you know if it is really a mentor relationship? Mentor relationships have some type of structure even if they are not company sponsored. Here is a quick check list to tell if your relationship is on the right track:

  • Are you meeting with your mentor on a regular basis – at least once every two months? If your meetings are on the fly or infrequent, the relationship is more casual.
  • Do you prepare an agenda ahead of time and share it? Provide discussion points in advance so your mentor can be prepared with their questions, advice and suggestions.
  • Do you review previous session recommendations? Is your mentor asking for some commitment to action? Do they follow through with what worked/did not work?
  • Does the mentor ask you tough or thought provoking questions? Individuals who just listen and give advice may not be the best choices for being a mentor.
  • Your mentor knows there is more than one way to get something done and helps you to find your personal approach. They are mindful of the missteps, and know that learning is sometimes about falling down and picking yourself back up.

Is your mentor challenging you enough? If not, then maybe you need to find another person to be your mentor.