Mentoring is meaningless

17 Jun

I think it is meaningless and have had this opinion for several years.   But my opinion is NOT  based on a “inaccurate” belief  that  my professional successes  have been based solely on my work.  I know that my career and leadership have  benefited from the input, advice and tough love of others.    I think its meaningless because I don’t understand:

What does “mentoring”  mean?

The word is meaningless  because similar to  leadership it gets used so often and can mean so many different things.  Additionally , it suffers from having  8 million definitions(Okay: that number may be a little inflated.)

The definition that resonates with me is ” someone who gives a sense of perspective and history, offers advice and shares contact or influence.” ~Working Across Generations – Kunreuther, Kim, Rodriguez

It is simple and hits  upon all of the major points that I think mentoring relationships( either as the mentor or the mentee) should encompass.  But it is still too broad.  I think to truly benefit from a mentoring relationship, you have to be strategic and give thought to what type of input you want and from whom.  This brings me to my second question:

What do I want?

The act  of being a mentor or a mentee is meaningless  unless both of you give thought to the outcomes and the structure of the relationship.  Three mentoring structures that I have seen work are:

  • Guides/Advisors
  • Kitchen Cabinet
  • Personal Board of Directors


If you want someone to explain ” the ropes to you” about a discreet situation ,  this is the role you are looking for.  This person could be your boss or a colleague.  They  will outline steps, share books, courses seminars and talks that they have attended that might help you.

Relationship frequency

This is an ala carte relationship.  You ask for the info,  they give it.  You consume it and may come back for more  information.  Make sure to keep the door open to ask questions.  A typical conversation might sound like this:

  • Mentee:  I am interested in this one point, did you encounter that?
  • Mentor:  Yes ( state similar situation)
  • Mentee: How did you handle it?
  • Mentor:  I did this ( offers solution)  What I learned from it was ( list)

Kitchen Cabinet

The term,  “kitchen cabinet” refers to any group of trusted friends and associates. This is your friend ” brain trust” who offers perspective and  firm feedback when you ask for it.   Usually, they come from a variety of different relationships with you.  What they have in common is that they know you and will offer you  advice.   And when they work together in offering  that advice, they can pull together a complete picture that can be very beneficial to you.

Relationship Frequency

This type of mentoring  is occasional.   You call them together  when you have  the need to get their feedback–the promotion, the layoff, the job offer or the resume.

The conversation may sound like this:

You:    I have the opportunity to get a  promotion but I need to figure out how to position myself so that I can show that  I deserve it.

Kitchen cabinet :  What is the promotion?  Who are the players?

You:  Deputy Director.   The players are  the Executive Director, the Board and  my peers  who will be interviewing me.

Kitchen Cabinet:  You need to think about the following:  who do you have a relationship with on the board, what is your reputation among your peers and what is the Executive Director looking for.   That all needs to be a part of your preparation.

Personal Board of Advisors

I recently listened to a podcast by Pamela Slim who was  interviewing a her BFF Desiree Adaway. The topic of their discussion was  Ms. Adaway’s decision to put together a personal board of directors.   Desiree shared that she got the idea from  Jim Collins  in his article , Looking Out for Number One. In short , the article talked about the why and how of setting up a personal board of directors.  Two important take aways for me were:

  • It is composed of seven people you deeply respect and would not want to let down
  • Used well, a personal board helps you find creative alternatives to life’s challenges and is a terrific place to turn for advice on handling crises and ethical dilemmas

Relationship frequency:

The frequency of the relationship depends.  In her board of Directors, Ms.  Adaway selected people from different backgrounds to give her  their time over the course of a year.  Her goal was to be able to approach them for guidance or encouragment or strategic advice.  Key to her success was that she:

  • worked with each of them differently depending on scheduling
  • wrote an annual report at the end of the year

This is not frequent relationship  but it is consistent and it accountable.

I am working on my Personal Board of Directors now. In Pam’s blog , she has a copy of the letter that Desiree  wrote to  her personal Board of Directors (which will be my inspiration for my own).   I am excited to do this as I think having those voices from a variety of different forms is so important as I move forward with my next life challenge/opportunities.

Overall,   my approach to mentoring is similar to  my approach to learning.  It is life long and it is meaningful.  And it sparks interest for me and the person that  I am in a mentoring relationship in.

So what does mentoring really mean to you?


~photo courtesy of a women’s mentoring course sponsored by The Rwanda Association of University Women

3 Responses to “Mentoring is meaningless”

  1. davidburkus June 18, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    I totally agree. That’s why I like Steve Farber’s Greater Than Yourself movement. He specifically lays out a mentoring program, but doesn’t call it mentoring so it doesn’t get lost in definition.

    • socialchangediva June 18, 2010 at 4:44 am #

      Oh, nice. I need to check his stuff out. Its funny, writing this post I was like ” STOP SAYING” you hate mentoring. But i do, i really want people to come to come to these types of situations when an idea of what they want in mind. And not just put out there, mentor me.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Barry Zweibel (@ggci) July 13, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Very interesting analysis, Ericka. I like it.

    A while back I wrote an article for called, “Creating a Portfolio of Mentors,” that you and your readers might find relevant to your post. Here’s a link to it:


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