Career Resources

New Millennium Mentoring: When Reverence Meets Relevance

Like so many cherished ideas from the past, the practice of mentoring is going through its own transformation. An honored concept, mentoring has roots that reach back to the epics of classical Greek literature. Maybe because this concept has endured for more than a couple of millennia, mentoring has acquired almost awe-inspiring stature. However, such respect for the practice does not mean that how we mentor is carved in stone and bound by rules out of antiquity.

Mentoring used to denote an ongoing, face-to-face, one-on-one, older-to-younger, and frequently male-to-male relationship. Good chemistry was the most important ingredient of a mentor-protege alliance. Typically, the senior partner selected a younger version of himself. Then the mentor paved the way for the protege’s advancement by securing choice, career-enhancing assignments for "junior." The mentor’s support also extended into the social realm in the form of opening doors to the right clubs, organizations, and teams. What might such an idealized type of mentoring relationship look like? Try visualizing the heart-warming relationship that would have grown between a fully redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge and his finally blossoming clerk Bob Cratchit had there only been a Part II to A Christmas Carol.

Mentoring has changed plenty since the time of Charles Dickens. The biggest change in executive mentoring has been the increase of women as both mentors and proteges. As a result, the primacy of "chemistry" in the mentoring relationship has been supplanted by the importance of commitment to an effective alliance. That commitment may take into account attention to personal growth and balance as well as professional advancement.

The task of finding the right match between mentor and protege continues to be challenging. However, more often than not it is the protege who takes the initiative and seeks out a mentor. Today we recognize that seeking someone similar to you as a mentoring partner is not always the best choice. Partners from different sectors of your field, or maybe even from a different field, can help you learn. Differences in the ethnicity or age of partners may actually be advantageous in helping you develop an understanding of a demographically diverse workforce.

As for the one-on-one and face-to-face parts of classical mentoring, those aspects linger, but they are rivaled by new approaches. Group mentoring arrangements may allow a highly regarded, much sought-after executive to assist a small group of proteges in addressing common professional development concerns. There is no doubt face-to-face contact can add value, especially when the chemistry is right. However, telementoring allows partners separated by distance to maintain contact via telephone or e-mail. Hewlett-Packard has created a successful e-mail mentor program that links thousands of its corporate employees with students grades 5 through 12. Apparently, having brief, but daily contact helps establish sufficient human touch in these relationships to make a real difference in the lives of the students.

Finally, it should come as no surprise that new millennium mentoring relationships might not be ongoing, lifelong arrangements. Instead, partners may agree to give their alliance a try for a specific purpose over a specific interval. Making the relationship work demands paying attention to its structure and process. Neither party should take for granted the expected gains from the relationship or the value they get from each contact.