Best Practices: Demystifying Mentoring at Work

Posted on April 16, 2011

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Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review Blog

What the Experts Say
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 they turn to. “In all likelihood, you’d benefit from having more than one developer,” says Kram, who prefers the term “developmental network” to mentor. “It’s that handful of people who you can go to for advice and who you trust to have your best interests in mind,” she explains. 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. Meister and her co-author Karie Willyerd agree with Kram. “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. “Mentoring can be a one-hour mentoring session. We don’t have to escalate it to a six-month or year-long event,” says Willyerd. 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,” says Meister. In today’s world, she says, mentoring is “more like Twitter and less like having a psychotherapy session.” [Please click here to read the remainder of this article.]

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