Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

The Difference Between A Mentor And Mentoring Behavior

mentorOne of the career development websites says this about mentors:

What separates a mentor from the average network contact is long-term commitment and a deep-seated investment in your future.

Further along in the article it says:

…your relationship with a mentor likely involves long lunches and time spent in the mentor’s office.

Those statements are both true, based on the historic and contemporary views of mentorship. However, those statements also point out the potentially negative aspects of mentoring. They also bring into question the accuracy of statements made by many supervisors and managers that they are mentors to those who report to them at work.  More likely they are providing mentoring behavior: Encouraging, advising, correcting, discussing, suggesting. Many are not even doing that much.

Mentes (Mentor) was a good friend of Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Ironically, most of the good advice given to Ulysses’s son was given by Athena who took the form of Mentes. Nevertheless, the term mentor has long been used to mean an advisor or wise counsellor. InThe Odyssey, Telemachus (the son of Ulysses and Penelope) says to Athena/Mentor,

…you’ve been speaking as a friend,
thinking as a father would for his own son—
and what you’ve said I never will forget.

Do you really want to be a mentor? A busy professional person told me not long ago that over the last few years several people have asked him to be a mentor to them and he has said no…to their shocked surprise. He told me he would always be available for a short phone call or an emailed question, but he said: “What they wanted was a true mentor–someone who would invest time and energy in their careers. I don’t have enough time for my own work and frankly, I don’t want someone calling or visiting me just to talk or expecting me to meet with them regularly.”

You may feel the same way. Before you agree to be a mentor, find out the expectations of the mentee. Make sure you really care about his or her career as if he or she is a personally selected protege who you want to shepherd to success.

Are you really the mentor you say you are? Some might say it is only a semantic issue to question whether someone is actually mentoring others or not, but I think it is important to be correct about it. Time, energy and potential success would indicate a supervisor cannot truly mentor every employee. On the other hand, it would not be a good thing for a supervisor to spend large amounts of time mentoring one employee but not others. Instead, an effective supervisor will engage in mentoring behaviors with all employees.

In addition, mentoring behavior is more than cheer-leading, commending, answering questions or just being friendly or encouraging.  Athena, as Mentor, told Telemachus, “You must not keep on acting like a child—you’re too old for that now…You are fine and strong, I see. You should be brave, so people born in future years will say good things of you.” 

You may need to balance your supportive mentoring conversations with some tough caring:

  • Honesty about how the employee is coming across to others.
  • Correction when the employee has shown poor judgment.
  • Guidance, when the employee is starting down the wrong path in behavior or performance.
  • Questions and listening, when the employee is trying to decide.
  • Specific advice on occasion, not just vague generalities.

The bottom line: As with many phrases we toss around without thinking, the term mentor is often misused and misunderstood. Make sure you know what you are talking about when you say you are a mentor or you will be a mentor.  Maybe what you really want to do is just fulfill your role as a supervisor, team leader or coach–or be a valuable colleague, coworker or friend.

March 14th, 2010 Posted by | Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments