December 10, 2021

Mentorship: What It Is and What It Isn't

Mentorship: What It Is and What It Isn't | Mixmax

In your career, you’ll build relationships with a number of people who will help you grow and improve. These people can come from all sorts of backgrounds, and each can enrich your knowledge and abilities in different ways. But one common word they’ll use to describe what they’re doing is mentorship

However, I’d argue that mentorship is one specific approach to guidance, and the term isn’t a one-size-fits-all label. In the tenth post of our Mixmax Advent 2021 blog series, I’ll explain what mentorship really is, as well as the other types of guidance you might receive in your career.

The Three Keys to Defining Mentorship

With mentorship, context matters greatly. The nature of the professional relationship between the mentor and the mentee is critical, as is the subject and goal of the mentorship. I’d like to posit three important rules to help recognize whether a particular scenario is truly mentorship, or another kind of guidance.

  1. Mentorship is sharing wisdom gained through experience.

    The important word here is wisdom. Mentorship isn’t primarily about getting into the tactical details of problem solving. Rather, it’s about discussing high-level strategy and developing plans to reach a long-term goal.
  2. A mentor shouldn’t be in a position of power over a mentee.

    Mentorship relationships must be built on trust. A mentee should feel able to go to their mentor about anything—including honest appraisals about their own shortcomings and failures, or emotional reactions to situations involving others—and expect support and guidance. If a mentor has power over their mentee, the mentee might feel uncomfortable sharing these vulnerabilities, which could make the relationship less effective.
  3. The mentee’s success must be the shared goal of both mentor and mentee.

    A mentor shouldn’t enter a mentorship relationship with the expectation that they’re going to get anything out of it beyond more valuable experience in mentoring. For the mentor, that experience is most valuable when the mentorship leads to the mentee’s success.

In order to clarify what I mean, it might be most helpful to explain what mentorship is not.

What Mentorship Isn’t

In order to demonstrate how relationships and goals determine the nature of a knowledge-sharing situation, let’s consider some scenarios that don’t qualify as mentorship under the previous definition.

Management Isn’t Mentorship

While a good manager incorporates the wisdom-sharing of mentorship into their work with you and considers your success important to them, they don’t fit the definition of mentor in two ways. First, they hold power over you (for example, they can choose to promote you or fire you). Second, their primary goal is the success of the entire team, not just you.

A manager by necessity serves two masters: the company and the individual. First and foremost, managers need to prioritize the health and success of the company as a whole. The individual comes second, which makes a managerial relationship not a good fit for true mentorship. A manager can’t prioritize your success, has to think critically about the information you share with them, and sometimes, in hard situations, will use that knowledge to take actions contrary to your best interests.

Additionally, a manager can’t always focus on high-level strategy, and must regularly dig into tactical details with their direct reports in order to keep daily work and ongoing projects running smoothly.

Sponsorship Isn’t Mentorship

A sponsor is someone who uses their clout and earned respect to help boost someone else’s career in some way. The main distinguishing feature of a sponsorship relationship is the focus on career growth: the sponsor believes in you and wants to help you level up. They also believe that by doing so, they’ll later be able to work with you to help further their own goals.

A sponsor’s task is primarily to find opportunities for you to grow, and to help you take advantage of those opportunities to the fullest. This involves similar guidance to mentorship, but in a much more tactical way, and relies on the sponsor making a much more personal investment in your success. They’re betting on you, with the hope that your achievements will also boost their own position.

Coaching Isn’t Mentorship

When you’re looking to level up a specific skill, you might seek out a coach (or a trainer) who is experienced in that particular area. A coach is going to work to share knowledge, but they’ll be doing so in an extremely tactical manner, aimed at challenging you to develop a specific and limited skill set through exercise and targeted feedback. While this is a valuable type of relationship that can help you address an immediate, short-term need, it’s not a mentorship situation due to the focus on such a well-delineated, tactical area.

What to Expect From a Mentor

When you find a good mentor—someone with lots of experience and wisdom that you can benefit from, someone you can be open and honest with and not worry about them holding power over you, and someone whose primary concern in the relationship is your success—how do you make the most out of their mentorship?

The most effective way to work with a good mentor is to come prepared. Keep notes on the problems you’re struggling with, the relationships with others that are giving you trouble, and the parts of your job that leave you anxious. When you meet with your mentor, give them context on what you’re struggling with and what you want to accomplish.

A good mentor will be able to approach these problems from two angles. First, they’ll be able to offer advice based on similar situations they’ve seen in the past. Second, they’ll be able to ask you good, open-ended questions to help you gather your thoughts and arrive at your own conclusions.

Overall, a good mentorship relationship will feel like a positive and productive use of your time, and you’ll come away with ideas and questions you’re eager to pursue. In the long term, a good mentor will feel like a key resource for your growth, and you’ll be able to point to your interactions with them as a critical part of your career development.

Want to work with a team of experienced and compassionate engineers, who can be both strong peers and good potential mentors? Come join the Mixmax engineering team.

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