False Dichotomies

Recently, I was sent two pieces by colleagues of mine regarding the attributes of mentorship, and whether or not mentors are helpful. The first, Why Mentoring Won’t Create More Female Leaders, retreads a well-worn subject on mentorship versus sponsorship. Like many of the current popular articles and books on this subject, it makes a distinction between active sponsorship and “passive traditional mentorship.” The former, the article argues, is what moves you up the ranks (and will ultimately create more female leaders). Sponsors open doors, advocate on the other person’s behalf, and support personal and professional growth.

The other piece is entitled, What Beats a Mentor? An Accountability Partner. This piece, written through the lens of creating healthy habits, argues that instead of traditional hierarchical mentoring relationships, what we need are peer relationships that will hold us accountable as we pursue our goals. “Accountability partnerships work when they are a collaboration between two colleagues who like and respect one another–your partner is someone you trust, who will keep you honest and moving on a path you set for yourself.”

Both of these articles raise interesting points to consider, but I fundamentally disagree with the premise behind both, namely, that what they are talking about are NOT the roles of effective mentors. I believe we are truly splitting hairs (in the service of selling books/magazine articles) when we are trying to distinguish between sponsorship and mentorship, and between mentorship and accountability partners. Can you sponsor someone without being his mentor? Sure, but I don’t know why you would want to put your reputation on the line for someone you aren’t remotely invested in. Can you hold someone accountable for his goals without mentoring him? Certainly, but probably not very effectively, because, again, that means you aren’t truly invested in him or his progress.

It is largely agreed-upon (though with some debate over the true nature of this relationship) that the term “mentor” first appeared in Homer’s “Odyssey,” when Telemachus was guided by Athena, masquerading as Mentor, in his quest to find his father, Odysseus. Over time, and as needs have changed, the role of the mentor has taken on many forms, including the master-apprentice model, the anointed successor/protégé model, the “sage on the stage,” the wise counselor, the role model, and the friend. Now we are throwing in terms like “sponsor” and “accountability partner.” With so many different ideas and visions of what mentoring can and should be floating out there, at times it can be confusing to know what, as a mentor, one is supposed to do to effectively perform these roles.

A number of years ago, Boston University professor Kathy Kram further articulated the roles of the mentor into two broad categories: career mentoring functions and psychosocial mentoring functions. The career mentoring functions include things like sponsorship, career development, advancement, and socialization. Career mentors connect their mentees to opportunities and resources that broaden their experiences, help them think through their career paths, and help them clarify future directions that align with their strengths, interests, and values. The psychosocial mentoring functions support identity development, values clarification, and development of the self. While it is possible that the same person may fulfill multiple roles, in today’s environment we encourage individuals to develop a diverse network of mentors who can support multiple needs (and thereby lessening the burden on any one particular mentor to try to be all things).

The bottom line is this: effective mentors ARE sponsors and accountability partners. Effective mentors aren’t passive. Effective mentors open doors, advocate, support personal and professional growth, and hold us accountable for our goals. Effective mentors ask thought-provoking questions, practice active listening, role model behavior, share experiences through storytelling, and provide objective feedback. Effective mentors help their mentees do the critical work of testing assumptions, clarifying beliefs and values, and forming their identities. Effective mentors are invested in their mentees as people and as professionals. If you are doing anything less than that, then you’re not an effective mentor. If you’re receiving anything less than that, then truly you deserve better.