Fifty Shades of Mentoring & 4 Ways to Succeed

by Lois Zachary

It was a dark and stormy night. Secretly, she wanted to cancel their mentoring meeting. She was scared. Scared about driving during the storm and also that if she didn’t meet with her mentor this evening she would miss the opportunity to get timely feedback and support regarding a strategic assignment she had been given by the CEO. It had taken weeks to agree on a date for this meeting. Her mentor’s time was precious. She pushed her chair back from the desk, stood up, looked around and took three deep cleansing breaths. Suddenly…leadership skills to establish a successful mentoring program

Do I have your attention? I hope so because I want to discuss the various shades of mentoring. By that, I mean the variation and differences when it comes to defining the term itself.

The fact is that there are not just 50 shades of mentoring but over 500 shades of mentoring (and still counting). These definitions are based on assumptions about the purpose and outcomes of mentoring, and the role of the mentor and mentee.

The term “mentoring” covers the panoply of development activities that go on in the workplace. It is often overused, misused, and underutilized. There is sometimes resistance to label any new mentoring program when previous mentoring initiatives have been unsuccessful. So, mentoring is presented under the banner of “coaching” or “advising” or “learning.”

The result might be a very low-level of mentoring where mentoring becomes a series of transactions rather than a dynamic continuum of conversation. The mentee, having never been in a mentoring relationship, comes to it looking for advice about how to solve day-to-day problems. The mentor, who has little time to spare, sees the need and looks to fill it quickly by giving the right answers. Both mentor and mentee are participating in the relationship with differing assumptions driving their interaction.

Clarify Assumptions

Since we all act on our assumptions it is important to clarify and check them out to make sure they are valid. If they are not, they will compromise the trust in a relationship, erode communication and upend it.

For example, suppose I come to a mentoring relationship assuming that my mentor will “take me under his wing,” get me more exposure in my company, and pave the way up the corporate ladder by giving me coveted special assignments, and make sure I am successful. My mentor may come into our relationship with a whole different set of assumptions about the ends and means of the relationship. He might be assuming that I am going to drive the relationship, bring issues to the table, and ask for what I need. This scenario is a recipe for disaster unless my mentor and I take the time to talk about what mentoring is and is not.

4 Must Do’s to Succeed in Mentoring

1. Develop a coherence of mentoring practice within your organization. Whether it is informal or formal mentoring, group or individual mentoring, on site or virtual mentoring, clarify and agree on a robust definition. Communicate and reinforce that definition so it cascades down into the organization. No matter what form mentoring takes in your organization, it is your definition of mentoring that will ultimately guide its success. 

2. Encourage mentoring partners to explore their assumptions about mentoring. This is especially important at the beginning of a mentoring relationship when mentors and mentees discuss their past mentoring experiences and how they are similar or different, what has worked for them in the past, and how those similarities and differences might play out in their current relationship.

3. Acknowledge the uniqueness of each participant and relationship. We all bring who we are to what we do. The individuals that enter into a mentoring relationship are each unique and therefore each and every partnership is unique. Each partnership needs to make mentoring work for them.  A mentoring relationship is a work in progress.

4. Provide multiple mentoring opportunities in your organization. New configurations of mentoring continue to emerge, i.e., mosaic mentoring; flash mentoring, quad mentoring, along with the demand for mentoring. Be open to DIY (do it yourself) mentoring.

Fifty Shades

While mentoring relationships vary by the nature of the diversity of the individuals engaged in them, there must be coherence of practice within each organization. Coherence of mentoring practice projects a standard and expectation to which everyone within your organization can aspire. A clear definition of mentoring provides the benchmarks for measuring your success.

Suddenly, the sky turned from pitch black to fifty shades of grey.

Lois ZacharyLois Zachary is the President of Leadership Development Services, LLC. and an international expert on mentoring and leadership development. She has written several books on mentoring. The newest one is The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships . Other books include Creating a Mentoring Culture: The Organization’s Guide, and The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You.


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