Mentorship is a beautiful thing, but only if it's beautiful. Only if it's pure. It's beautiful and pure if the intentions of the protégé are clear--to learn--and if the intentions of the mentor are clear--to teach.
Now, the teaching has a lot of implications. The knowledge itself offers an advantage. And that advantage can lead to better jobs and more money and more power for the protégé (or mentee, as we won't be referring to it). But all of that should be irrelevant. The protégé wants to know things. The mentor wants to give answers. The protégé gets the knowledge. The mentor gets the satisfaction. (And there is nothing more satisfying in the professional world than answering easy questions.)
One thing: This isn't about company- or organization-sponsored mentorship programs that facilitate structured relationships between mentors and protégés. This is about something unadulterated by rules and guidelines and regularly scheduled coffees. This is about the kind of mentoring that happens because an experienced person (might be a boss, might not) and a less experienced person establish, implicitly or explicitly, a vague relationship based on a common truth: that knowledge should be passed along.
"The shortcoming of the structured mentoring relationship--where mentoring is on the checklist for you to be promoted--is that it becomes a transactional relationship," says Oliver Kharraz, co-founder, COO and chief medical officer of ZocDoc, an online medical-care scheduling service. Everyone we talked to is skeptical of structured mentoring. It has value, but its value is limited.
What we're talking about is mentorship that is so pure it might go unacknowledged. But if it goes unacknowledged, how do we know how it's supposed to work?
What a Mentor Can't Be
First of all, a good mentor shouldn't be too friendly. Encouragement is overrated.
"The best thing a mentor can do is give honest, supportive feedback that is focused on brutal facts," says Gina Bianchini, former CEO of Ning and founder of Mightybell, a collaborative online platform for creative projects. "I worry about the emphasis on mentoring, because it's a little like, 'If I find a mentor, they'll take care of me; they'll show me the ropes; all I have to do is lean back and follow them.' That's not the way the world works, and I think that's a dangerous expectation to set for anyone."
The way the world works is not like that at all. And a mentor should be a representative of the real world. A mentor should test a protégé as much as assist.
If you're friends with the protégé, you can't be a mentor. You are a more experienced friend and you can occasionally offer advice to that friend, but if you hang out socially on a regular basis, you are not a mentor.
What a prospective protégé should do is find the person (again: could be a boss, but doesn't have to be) who is professionally admirable but not all that affable. A good mentor should be a little intimidating. A good mentor should be someone whose success is equaled only by reticence, with no time wasted on niceties. A good mentor should be kind of a jerk, frankly. Because if a jerk is willing to help you out, then you know the insights will be valuable. A jerk is not going to say things that aren't true in order to spare your feelings. A jerk is not going to be kind (a quality that is overrated in mentorship). Mentors don't need to be kind--they need to be right.
Here's some sample dialogue between a protégé (P) and a mentor (M) who's concerned about the protégé's feelings:
P: I'm thinking of switching gears and becoming a lawyer.
M: Follow your dreams.
Here's some sample dialogue between a protégé and a mentor who's not concerned about the protégé's feelings:
P: I'm thinking of becoming a lawyer.
M: That's idiotic.
If you're a prospective protégé, you want the second mentor. Because mentor No. 2 is right.
The Etiquette of Mentoring
There are plenty of etiquette pitfalls when it comes to being a protégé. You want to be deferential but not obsequious. You don't want to be overbearing. You want to send a thank-you note after a particularly helpful conversation.
But for the mentor, etiquette is a much more abstract idea. If kindnesses aren't all that important, then what decisions are there to make? For the mentor, etiquette is as much about anti-etiquette. You don't want to be overly friendly; that sort of thing can be looked upon as ulterior and can be a waste of time. You don't want to seek out the protégé, because that sort of thing can seem very ulterior. The only rule of etiquette for the mentor is rectitude. It doesn't work if the mentor has anything up his sleeve. And rectitude has a way of making the etiquette fall into place.
Why the Best Mentors Don't Even Know They're Mentors
If you are successful and utter the occasional pithy truth in casual conversation, you will be looked upon as a possible mentor. You might not know you're mentor material, but you are. When someone asks to have a meeting to discuss a possible job that you have nothing to do with, that's mentorship. When someone asks to "pick your brain," that's a request for mentorship. (Side note: We really need to stop using this "pick your brain" metaphor. I'm not sure there's anything that sounds less appealing than brain-picking.) When someone says, "Would you please be my mentor?" that's weird, because that's not how mentorship works.
Most mentorship is incidental. The best mentors are the ones who lead by example without acknowledging they're leading by example. The ones who are the best at it are the ones who don't even know they're doing it.
The Protégé: A Checklist
Have at least five years less work experience than the mentor.
Ask questions, but not too many.
Be complimentary, but not sycophantic.
Be solicitous, but not overeager.
Want the mentor's job someday.
Want the mentor's car someday.
Be not clingy.
Be loyal, but not at the expense of one's career.
Never say no.
Be as smart as, but not yet as wise as, the mentor.
Do not tweet at the mentor.
Do not give out the mentor's e-mail address.
Do not start dressing like the mentor.
Do not start laughing like the mentor.
Do not adopt the mentor's hairstyle.
Do not pose as the mentor at parties.
Do not commit a crime for the mentor--but briefly consider it.