I owe a great deal of my success in each of my careers, military and civilian, to people who cared enough about me to provide a consistent guiding hand. Even at times when I didn’t think I needed a guiding hand, it seems that someone always knew better and provided that steering for me. Other than the more obvious mentoring I had from my Dad, I think my awareness of people trying to guide me to a better life probably started when I worked at the drugstore in my home town. The drug store owner also owned the ambulance service in those days and not only did I learn about business, but also got to drive the ambulance. Bear in mind this was long before “paramedics” and the now present fire department response teams existed. I had no formal training, just what I learned from the druggist and my colleague, Ronnie, who was 4 years older than me and had been at the store several years when I was hired. But we hauled many people to the local hospital in those days and never had a problem or lawsuit. When I joined the Air Force, it didn’t take long for my first supervisors to take what I thought was an extraordinary interest in my success. Looking back, I now readily see they were mentoring me for bigger things. Perhaps I instigated this by being inquisitive and maybe I was just fortunate, either way, I owe a much of my storied success to a long list of mentors. My career in education and training is owed to Col White, my boss at Langley AFB who mentored me to go into education and to Dr. Brown who mentored me in my last assignment in the Air Force and my first assignment in civil service. Without the guidance of these two, I have no idea where I would be today, but it surely wouldn’t be leading learning organizations. So what is a mentor?
A mentor is an individual who provides positive guidance on a routine basis in areas of expertise to a protégé who is willing to accept that guidance. Further, the protégé becomes a mentor in their own right and continues the legacy of positive enlightenment. A mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but as long as the mentor has expertise and is willing to share that expertise, age is irrelevant. It is a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn from that experience. I qualify the definition by saying “a positive relationship”. While drug dealers and pimps probably offer some form of on the job training to their lackeys, I don’t consider that relationship a mentorship. And yes, there are two distinct words for the mentee, protégée and protégé. Protégée is the feminine form of protégé.
Mentoring is an on-going process that always involves communication and is relationship based but may have very loose activities or very structured activities. On one end of the spectrum, mentoring can take the form of rigidly structured, regularly scheduled meetings with clearly defined agendas and action items for the mentor and mentee. At the other end of the spectrum and this is what I believe most commonly happens, is the unscheduled guidance that arises due to a given situation. This type of mentoring results from any emerging need where the mentee needs guidance.
Structured mentoring often involves the mentor providing not only verbal guidance but also tasking the mentee with actions to self-develop. I’ve actually had a couple of mentors who made it clear they were mentoring me and expected me to do my share of homework in order for them to continue exerting mentor effort on me. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been mentored by people who probably didn’t know they were mentoring me and that I was in fact improving my life based on their guidance. It’s important to note that I draw a clear line between mentoring and coaching. To me, mentoring is a persistent relationship that lasts for an extended period of time and covers a variety of topics, no matter if it’s structured or unstructured. Coaching is a much more short term exchange of information. Coaching can be a 1 minute event that covers one subject and my never occur again. For example, I was coached recently while purchasing a new business suit by the salesperson. He coached me on what type of fabrics and colors worked best for me. I will probably never see that salesperson again, but I will long remember (and share as appropriate) that information he coached into me.
I have developed a number of documents that can be tailored for formal mentoring programs. You can find some of them on the SAMPLE PRODUCTS page.