What’s a Mentor and Why Don’t More People Mentor?

The March (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable dipped its toes into a more personal side of professional development to discuss the topic of mentoring. There are countless recommendations about mentoring and encouragement to either have a mentor, be a mentor yourself, or encourage others to get a mentor. To try and put some context around the subject, the attendees wrestled with the following three initial questions:

  • Why don’t people mentor others?
  • What factors would fall into “A mentor isn’t . . . “?
  • What factors would fall into “A mentor is . . .”?

The small groups took on a life of their own as they dove into these questions because we had over 150 people attending! After some time, everyone came back together and shared the following:

Why don’t people mentor others?

It takes too much time — Isn’t this fantastic? (Sarcasm intended.) However, it is the first answer for most people. We see that investing in others is infringing on my own personal time. When people take this stance, it’s sad. To think that others aren’t important is discouraging not only for HR, but for businesses as well.

It’s outside the scope of my work — As if “not enough time” wasn’t impersonal enough, here’s another obstacle. If you only consider mentoring because it’s forced upon you as some job task, you fill fail. Anything that causes people reluctance cannot succeed.

It’s contrived — This is the classic “fake it ‘til you make it.” You don’t want to mentor others, but you go through the motions anyway. You do this either because you were told to mentor someone, or you think it will make you look good or personally feel better. Selfishness is not a part of effective mentoring.

Lack of an existing relationship / You weren’t invited — Genuine connections between people seem to be daunting for most. There is this invisible barrier that tends to keep people apart instead of together. These reasons aren’t as harsh as the first ones noted in this section because this suggests there are people who like to be a mentor or have a mentor. It’s a matter of getting over this hesitancy to connect.

Feelings of inadequacy — This one is tough because the junk in your head can be a powerful persuader. Humans are incredibly comparative by nature. We look at who we are (or see ourselves), and we compare what we “think” others feel or think. Most of our thoughts are unwarranted and false. However, they also inhibit us from taking risks into relationships on a regular basis.

The role isn’t clear — We aren’t sure what to do because there isn’t a mentoring guidebook. There are great examples of what you can try as a mentor/mentee, but there isn’t a one size fits all approach. Since we are all unique as humans, we can’t formulate an exact “how to.” Not having clarity can mean not having a mentor.

What factors would fall into “A mentor isn’t . . .”?

Selfish — This was mentioned before, but it deserves more attention. Mentoring isn’t an interaction where people sit at your feet to soak in all of your wisdom and experiences. Mentoring isn’t a “me” thing. It’s an “us” professional relationship.

Necessarily older – This was a brilliant answer! We typically assign the assumption of age as an initial factor in becoming a mentor. Age by itself does not ensure that you have a lot to offer or share. Experience is a great facet of mentoring, but that can happen at any time throughout someone’s career. There isn’t an age minimum in order to become a mentor.

Necessarily your supervisor — There are very few absolutes to consider in mentoring. This may be one. It’s hard for someone to be your mentor and your supervisor. The tensions and push/pull of the boss/subordinate daily interactions don’t usually work in a mentoring relationship. You can be a supervisor of others and also a mentor, but it shouldn’t be your direct reports.

A program — This is where HR people tear their clothes and gnash their teeth. It’s true that companies have formal mentoring programs, and some of them work. Most, however, fall into the contrived facet mentioned before because we’re trying to force interactions and relationships because we’re told that they’ll work. They do, but not if they’re forced.

Someone trying to take your job — You shouldn’t be surprised by this answer. There is a long-held mantra in organizations that you’re encouraged to hire people who are smarter than you so that one day they can take your job. We don’t want that to happen. Since that is an innate fear, warranted or not, we refuse to mentor. It’s shortsighted, but it’s more of our reality than you think. (Editor’s Note: A few days after the Roundtable, the comic strip Dilbert had a strip specifically on this. If you’d like to check it out, here’s the link.)

What factors would fall into “A mentor is . . .”?

Someone who opts in — We did have one great example of a mentoring program that is happening at Macy’s. The huge differentiator about this program is that both mentors and mentees opt in. They choose to participate versus being told to do it. There are ground rules and parameters of what the mentoring relationship should look like. This is fantastic and a great way to see mentoring work!

In a partnership — Mentoring is a two-way street at least. Like all relationships there are moments of give and take. A solid mentor knows this and make sure that the person he/she is mentoring understands that you’re entering into a partnership that will ebb and flow over time.

Article Continues Below

Not there to “fix you” — This needs to be noted for both the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring is not a psychology session. It should focus much more on professional development and lessons learned than trying to repair something. Don’t make the assumption that you’re prepared or equipped to handle a person’s personal issues. There are various professionals who can, and should, be the resource for them to seek out.

A guide who gives directionThis may be the clearest and simplest definition of a mentor. However, it has incredible depth at the same time. Keeping the mentoring relationship broad and open allows both folks to move to and fro as needed. You may start in one direction and veer off into a completely different way over time. Having that flexibility is healthy.

Someone who is genuine, authentic and natural — Great mentors have all of these attributes. Chances are they’ve been mentored themselves and want to carry that on with others. When you have this type of mentor, it has all of the components noted before. They avoid the pitfalls and “don’ts” and they are truly interested in investing their time and attention with others.

This was a great Roundtable and it seemed as if people had a more positive perspective on how to be a mentor. The next step is to follow that through to see if they can become a mentor and also be mentored themselves.

Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.