In high school, I attended a day-long seminar where students heard from various speakers about all the different facets of leadership, including the impact of mentoring in the workplace and what to look for in a good mentor. 

This mentorship session sticks out in my mind because of how mentorship was compared to vampires and surgeons. It was an odd metaphor, and when I sat down to listen to the presentation, I had no idea where things were going (much less where they’d end up). 

The speaker began the presentation by sharing several scenarios where feedback or criticism was given from a mentor to a mentee. Using these scenarios, he illustrated how there are two types of critics — vampires and surgeons. A vampire goes in for the bite, and then leaves you to patch yourself back up (if you can). A surgeon makes the cut and sows you back together and continues to help you heal.

If you were receiving criticism or feedback from someone, which would you want, a vampire or a surgeon?

Two people, a mentor and a mentee, talking to each other in the workplace

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Importance of Mentorship at the Workplace

So many years later, I remember this story because it showed me the impact of mentoring in the workplace. It only takes a bit of imagination to finish the vampire and surgeon scenarios. 

Where do you think the employee with a vampire mentor will end up? How about one with a surgeon mentor?

I’d say an employee with a surgeon mentor is far more likely to succeed in their work environment and reach their career goals. Because of their mentor’s criticism and coaching, that employee will know how to correct course and progress in their career. Without the coaching aspect, then the mentor is no better than a “hater” despite how true their feedback may be.

As I’ve been relying on mentors a lot these past few months, I wanted to dive deeper into the impact of mentoring in the workplace.

My mentors at work have contributed immensely to my positive experience at this big corporate machine, so I will also highlight the importance of mentorship in the workplace.

Unfortunately, this week, I also had to let some mentors go who turned out to be vampires. Though the decision was hard, I learned what to look for in a professional mentor and how to articulate what I want to learn from my mentor in the future to avoid a similar toxic mentor relationship. 

Before diving into the details, here’s a baseline definition of mentorship.

What is mentorship?

Although the vampire/surgeon metaphor relies on criticism to describe mentorship, mentorship emcompasses much more. Mentorship is a relationship between two or more people where one person (the mentor) is helping guide and coach the other person (the mentee) on reaching his or her goals.

While this article focuses on mentors in the workplace, mentorship spans all disciplines and environments. You can have a mentor for:

  • School / academics
  • Fellowships
  • Your spiritual life
  • Managing your finances
  • Buying a home / car
  • Starting a business
  • Hobbies
  • Marriage / Relationships
  • Almost anything

Who is a Mentor

Typically, a mentor has more experience than the mentee. Sometimes that means the mentor is older, but that’s not always the case.

Mentors have had certain experiences from which they’ve acquired wisdom and lessons learned. They use that experience to help you discern how to achieve your goals. 

Other qualities of a mentor are:

  • Good communication skills (especially listening)
  • Coaching skills
  • Able to see things from different perspectives
  • Achieved a goal you are pursuing / similar interests
  • Honest (they can sugar coat it, but they need to tell the truth)
  • Trustworthy (keeps things confidential)
  • Time to dedicate to mentoring you

Peer mentorships also function well in certain circumstances. For example, I have a mentor who holds the same position as me. When we meet, she shares her project experiences with me to help me acquire new skills. 

Whether your mentor is your age or older, the ability to learn from them should be a must-have on your list of “what to look for in a mentor.”

What is the role of a mentor?

In the definition above, I mentioned that mentors “help you discern” how to achieve your goals. Mentors do not give out directions or orders. 

Their role is to coach you and guide you, giving you the tools, knowledge, and confidence to make your own decisions.

It’s important that mentors don’t make your decisions for you because you’re the one that, at the end of the day, has to live with the results. Exhibit A. Your mentor says that you need to take the lead role on your team, but you are worried that the additional work will be more than you can handle. You’re unable to work overtime because you volunteer at your local church during the week.

However, to make your mentor happy, you decide to accept the lead role anyway. After a couple of weeks, you miss a couple of deadlines and a lot of sleep trying to catch up. Should you be mad at your mentor for telling you to take the lead role?

No. Never listen to advice to make your mentors happy. Only you know what you can handle, what you’re comfortable with, and your other life priorities at the moment. Your mentors are not there to tell you how to make them happy. 

Mentors are there to guide you and help you determine the best path for you.

Kara J. Lovett Co.

That’s what you should look for in a professional mentor, a career mentor, and all mentors! The positive impact mentorship has in the workplace comes from guiding and advising mentees to make their own decisions.

Related: 9 Benefits of Maintaining a Healthy Work Life Balance (and How)

What to expect from a Mentor

In addition to providing feedback, mentors also give you advice, help you work through tough work situations, share their own experiences with you, and offer different points of view for you to consider when making decisions. 

Genuine mentors should also be advocating for you and cheering you on when you succeed. Oftentimes, they will push you to challenge yourself because they want you to realize your full potential.

Something you should not expect from true mentors is controlling behavior, particularly control over you and your career. This past week I had to end a mentorship relationship because I wasn’t receiving the coaching that I needed. Instead my mentor was both telling me what to do and preventing me from pursuing any other options. Needless to say, this created a toxic mentor relationship.

At first, it was hard to recognize what went wrong, but I read an article from ProFellow about bad mentors and advisors can introduce fear and self-doubt in our minds. After reading the article, I came to the conclusion that the coaching aspect was missing from the mentorship relationship. 

Importance of Coaching in a Mentorship Relationship

Coaching is an important aspect of mentorship because it prevents a mentor relationship from becoming overbearing. As I mentioned above, all decisions should be yours to make. If your mentor believes that you should choose one option in particular, they should be asking you questions to help you realize that.

For example, in the first year of my consulting job, I was considering rolling off of my project early. By the time I approached my mentor about it, I was sure that I would be better off on another project.

However, my mentor considered her consulting experience and suggested that I stay on my project a little longer. Yet instead of outright telling me what I should do, she asked me a series of questions, such as:

  • What skills have you already gained from this project?
  • Do you like the client?
  • How are you enjoying the work that you are doing?
  • Does the project manager anticipate that your role will change in the next few months? How?

After answering my mentor’s questions and weighing my options, I realized that staying on my project was the best option for my goals and my career at the moment. 

Even if I had gone against my mentor’s suggestion, she would have still stood beside my decision because she recognized that her job was to coach me, not tell me. 

Purpose of Mentoring in the Workplace

Some people argue that mentorship relationships are unnecessary. An employee can receive all the instruction, help, and guidance they need from their supervisor or manager. However, the manager-employee relationship has many characteristics that prevent it from being the open relationship that employees need in a mentor relationship.

For example, if you were considering switching teams or moving departments, it prevents a conflict of interest if you were to ask your manager for guidance. The manager could be willing to help, but there’s also a chance that he or she would try to keep you on his or her team by bad-mouthing the other departments.

Additionally, the fact that your manager has hiring and firing power within your group may make you feel nervous to bring up hard topics, such as co-worker conflict. If your manager approves your salary or advocates for your promotions, perhaps you’ll avoid mentioning your dissatisfaction with your work.

 At times, there are conversations that we can’t have with our managers, especially if it involves misconduct by our manager. For any of those conversations that we can’t have with our managers, mentors are there to rescue us. 

The purpose of mentorship is to give you an open, unbiased, free forum to express any questions, concerns, or problems with no fear of retaliation.

Once the complaining is over, you can work with your mentors to brainstorm solutions, too, and gain the perspective from mentors who are removed from the situation and more objective. 

While you eventually do want to have these conversations with your manager, it’s easier to do once you’ve talked it through with a mentor. Then you’ll know the most professional way to have those discussions with your manager while keeping in mind company culture. 

Why Mentorship is important in the workplace?

When you work day in and day out with the same team or within the same department, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. Forming a narrow view of our company and workplace can prevent us from reaching our potential. We could miss out on opportunities to upskill, network, learn about other departments and positions, and progress our careers.

In large companies, mentorship helps new employees form a community of support around them. Walking into a big company on the first day can be overwhelming. Starting a job virtually can feel isolating. Mentorship in the workplace is important because it’s personal and helps employees feel like they matter. Mentors lend a listening ear to employees and help them solve problems for clients. They offer solutions and guidance to discouraging, internal company issues.

How does mentoring help employees?

Mentorship also helps employees advance their careers. Potential for career advancement is top on the list of what employees look for in a new position. Oftentimes a mentor provides advice and guidance on how employees can grow their skills to be ready for a higher level position.

If these are things that you want to learn from a mentor, make sure to bring them up in your conversations. Being able to articulate what you want to learn from a mentor will make sure you get the most out of the mentor relationship.

Tips for Finding a Mentor at Work

In my year and half in corporate America, I’ve seen the impact of mentoring in the workplace and come to understand the importance that it holds. Not only is it a strategy the company can use to retain talent, but it’s great for employees as well…if the employee can find a mentor.

Finding a mentor at work is no small task, and there is some trial and error associated with it to find a good fit. To help you with finding a mentor, here’s a couple of tips. 

A woman mentoring another woman in the workplace over a cup of coffee

1. Search for Employee Programs

Many companies have an employee program dedicated to helping people find mentors. Ask your manager and co-workers if such a program exists and sign up.

If there is not an employee program, ask your manager and coworkers if they have mentors and how they found their mentors. Use the same tactics to find a mentor in your company. 

Joining an employee resource group is another option for finding a mentor at work. Employee groups are grouped by interest, such as “women in tech,” so you can find someone with similar interests and/or career path.

1.1 Ask for a Recommendation

Alternatively, you can ask your manager and coworkers to recommend someone to be your mentor. To help them make a good recommendation, have a list of qualities you’re looking for in a mentor or what you want to learn from your mentor. 

Do you want to learn more skills related to the industry? Are you wanting to discuss career progression? Are you wanting someone to help you get situated in a new company?

Once you know what you hope to gain from the mentorship, your manager and coworkers should be able to steer you in the right direction.

2. Network

Sometimes you have to do a bit of grunt work to find the mentor of your dreams. By grunt work, I mean network. But for people like me who don’t like networking, it can seem like grunt work.

However, networking is really just talking to people and getting to know them. When someone new joins your team or department, set up a 15-minute chat with them to learn more about them and their roles within the company. Networking can be as simple as that.

Getting involved in other initiatives outside of your day-to-day job also offers informal networking opportunities. For example, I’ve met other professionals in my city through volunteering to plant trees with other company volunteers. You may meet a mentor doing something similar!

3. Avoid Conflicts of Interest

The best mentoring relationships don’t mix power and guidance. For this reason, it’s difficult to have a successful mentorship alongside a manager-subordinate relationship. If someone has an incentive to make you stay in a position, join their team, keep you from promoting, or prevent you from progressing in your career, then don’t ask them to be your mentor.

Even if they assure you that they can maintain a neutral view, it’s best to avoid the conflict of interest all together. Unconsciously they may let other motives influence the advice they give you.

4. Have multiple mentors

Never put all of your eggs in one basket. There is no limit to how many mentors you can have, and I encourage you to have multiple in the workplace, each at a different point in their careers. 

It’s also valuable to have mentors in different departments and teams within the company because they can broaden your view of the company. If you’re looking for a new position within the company or needing to team up with a different department, this can certainly come in handy.

Lastly, find mentors outside your company as well. They can help you navigate the marketplace and determine if a position at a different company may be a better fit for you. Also, they can help you explore graduate school options and certifications to make sure you continue advancing your skills for the industry as a whole.

Shout out to all of my amazing mentors! You guys are awesome.

The Great Impact of Mentoring in the Workplace

Through mentorship, I’ve been able to navigate the politics of the corporate world without bumping heads with anyone. After receiving a mentor’s guidance, I’ve determined possible career moves to get me closer to reaching my goals. With my mentor, I’ve celebrated milestones in my career like promotions. 

The list goes on and on. I’ve seen the impact of mentoring in the workplace in my own career and the career of others. So as your informal blogosphere mentor, I encourage you to find a mentor who will advocate for you and champion you. 

One who will coach you and guide you, but not make decisions for you. One who will give you feedback, but then help you improve. If you have to choose between vampires and surgeons, choose a surgeon mentor, someone who has your best interest at heart. 

When should you start looking? Now!

Remember that at the end of the day, it’s your career. You’re in the driver’s seat, but at every crossroads, mentors can help guide you so you can choose the best path for you.

Remember that at the end of the day, it’s your career. You’re in the driver’s seat, but at every crossroads, mentors can help guide you so you can choose the best path for you. That alone demonstrates the importance of mentorship in the workplace and the impact it can have on our careers.

What do you look for in a mentor at work?

Leave me a comment below!

Don’t miss this! More posts about Working and the Young Professional Lifestyle:

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2 Comments

  1. Aarti Yadav says:

    Very True. I like to decide but sometimes I do need someone to approve my decision.

    1. Mentors are really great for helping you work through decisions. Hope this article was helpful in finding a great mentor.

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