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Team Culture

Mentorship as You Know It Is Dead

There is more than one great mentor out there waiting for you. In fact, there are plenty right in front of you, and they've been here the whole time.

Hollywood has been using mentorship as a predictable, romanticized trope for years; Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan Kenobi, Daniel-san had Mr. Miyagi, and Harry Potter had Dumbledore. And who doesn’t love to think there might be some unrecognizable potential, something very special in ourselves that only a wise mentor could help us find?

It’s also easy to assume that your boss is meant to fill the mentor role for you. After all, they hired you. Most likely they are older than you, and they’re definitely more experienced. And they picked you out of the hundreds of applicants, after probably only meeting with you once or twice. They saw something that was a little more special in you than in the rest.

But what a mentor’s role is, and how they’re found, has changed. There’s not much “grooming” of young, new hires for the boss’s own position these days, when the average stay at a company for employees is now 4.6 years (according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics). In the past, those mentorships were really apprenticeships, where someone showed you the ropes and skills of their own craft. We’re not being hired to be apprentices anymore, we’re hired to be multi-talented, autonomous creatives—and confusing the two modes can be a huge mistake.

What a mentor’s role is, and how they’re found, has changed.

Mentors provide the knowledge we are missing, open doors to new connections, and impart philosophies we otherwise would have had to wait years to learn. Companies don’t invest in that model anymore; mentorships aren’t built into entry-level jobs, or even internships. Which is why almost every job listing these days requires the applicant to “take initiative.” It really means, “I don’t want to have to hold your hand,” which in itself means, “I don’t have the time/energy available to teach you.”

While this can put new hires in a sink-or-swim situation, the new generation has been built to handle it. Millennials are more self-sufficient than their bosses might assume; after all, we did grow up with internet search engines and Google tools at our fingertips. This isn’t to say that millennials are “better,” but that we’re all more resourceful than we might think. So while we know that we can do the work, it can still be a jarring experience for those who came in with expectations of a mentor to tell us what work we should do, and how to do it.

Just as most of us would balk at the idea of an arranged marriage, there are no arranged mentorships waiting patiently for you. There are no CEOs or founders searching anxiously for a fresh college graduate to groom to take over their job one day. We’re not cogs in the career machine anymore. In the modern world, mentors aren’t given, they’re made.

Your Network is the New Mentor

Mentors themselves aren’t extinct, the models under which they used to exist are. Now, it’s easier than ever to look to our peers for guidance. What made the traditional apprenticeship-style mentoring work was hierarchy. The master trains the young. The young blossoms under tutorship and becomes the master. The first master can finally retire to Florida, now that his legacy is protected and maintained. Repeat.

But here in the internet-obsessed Networked Age, hierarchy is increasingly flat. Not just in the organizational sense (as some companies like Medium and Zappos move away from managers altogether), but in the way that we connect to one another. It’s not person-to-person, but person-to-people. Networking is constantly listed as a necessary step in every article or book written about what you need to do to be successful—but no where will you find even one of them stipulating that the connections you make must be only to those older than you, or more experienced, or in your field, in order for it to be useful.

Mentors themselves aren’t extinct, the models under which they existed are.

Why keep craning your neck around in search of an “authoritative” (read: higher-raking) mentor, when you can look to the peers and colleagues right in front of you? Creative circles aren’t a new concept and have been around for decades: from the French post-impressionists Société des Artistes Indépendants made up of Seurat, Signac, Picasso, Cézanne, van Gogh and more, to the British writer’s group the Inklings with Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Barfield, to name a few. If it’s really expertise you need, build a network of mini-mentors: instead of one, all-holy, gate-keeping mentor, find a handful of people across industries and experience levels that you can look to for their expert advice in their fields.

Mentor Up

A symbiotic exchange lies at the heart of modern mentorships. Technology has been advancing at an extraordinary rate over our lifetime (the first web browser was only invented in 1994 and the first iPhone in 2007), so when it comes to technical knowledge, mentors have so much to gain from their mentee’s awareness of all things current and relevant. Look for a mentor not only by what they can teach you, but by what you can teach them as well.

Think about it this way: In 1980, graphic designers were using rulers and pencils, while cutting and pasting by hand, to graft together their work using traditional hand-rendering and paste-up techniques that were the industry standard. By the time the class of 1990 graduated, the hand-done techniques were gone; they had learned how to design using computer software.

Look for a mentor not only by what they can teach you, but by what you can teach them as well.

This ongoing technological change created a workplace of diverse talents and skills, where the most experienced person in the room was a master of their craft, but lacking in the new technical tools even the greenest new hire came in knowing.

Likewise, the “apprentices” of today have just as much to bring to the table as their mentors do. Industry wisdom, philosophy, and craft are invaluable—but so are the tools, fresh insights, and relevancy new hires come with fully loaded. Everybody wins.

Mentorship 2.0

Through these new ways in which mentorship works comes a lot of freedom. Freedom to look beyond the person assigned to rank above you, but also an overwhelming amount of outlets through which to find your own as well. We’ve previously discussed finding mentors by traveling to communities outside your own, or looking across your social networks, or even by doing favors for others. And the good thing is, your mentor can still be your boss. The better thing is that it no longer has to be.

Sasha VanHoven

Sasha is the Associate Editor of 99U. You can watch her tweet here.

Comments (32)
  • Mentorship as You Know It Is Dead - Zettelkasten
  • SUL Mentoring Program » Blog Archive » Mentorship as You Know It Is Dead
  • Keith Kayo Overton

    So, true. I didn’t find my mentor until I was 36 years old in my second career. But, know I make sure to pay if forward and have done so for the past few years. Good stuff in this article

  • James Orsini

    well said! I wrote an article on this very topic

    • john piselli

      i just read the article you wrote. It was a spectacular treatment of the topic. I wonder how The traditional career centers will adjust to support out of the box career minded young folks.

      • James Orsini

        John, its a real problem in our colleges and universities today. Career centers were built at a time when everyone got a job. “Just teach grads how to write a resume and interview and they’ll be fine”. This approach is dead today. At Seton Hall University we are spending significant time teaching and instructing on the art of networking….. check out my article on the authentic network as well

      • john piselli

        James, i have been involved in workforce development for the past 25 years. The message you carry is an important wake up call. I am a huge fan of networking. I do not know how to survive as a human race with out the interdependence which links us all together. That somehow, it is overlook for employment is unnatural in a sense.
        i would love to connect and learn about the model you use at Seton Hall University.

      • James Orsini

        yes John. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and well go from there…

  • happybana

    Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I think I disagree with this…Good mentors have never been just littering the work world…but my first job was under a small business owner who mentored me on the creative and business aspects of graphic design, and the whole structure of the in-house design department I’ll be joining soon is mentor-based.

  • Tom Fucillo

    Nice article. You make a lot of solid points.

  • Soon Min

    Your core message is true. Don’t just look up, but look around for people to learn from. My takeout isn’t so much that one is better than the other, but that everyone should keep their radars open. The people that i usually see struggle the most with this are those that are fairly new into their career paths.

    In those cases, i would still advise as much as possible for someone to look out for opportunities to work with someone that you know you could learn alot from as a big consideration. Like Happybana below, i’ve been very lucky to have the chance to learn from good people that were willing to teach me during my earlier days. Inversely, i’ve also seen others whose careers were stunted by years thanks to them landing up in a poor environment for learning.

  • Mentorship as You Know It Is Dead | BOH Leaders...

    […] There is more than one great mentor out there waiting for you. In fact, there are plenty right in front of you, and they've been here the whole time.  […]

  • Reshma Pancholi

    Great read, thanks for sharing. I agree with Sasha’s sentiment.

    Of course there will be ‘traditional’ mentors that continue to share their wisdom the way in which they always have but like others I too am now experiencing this new wave of mentoring first hand.

    The velocity, exchange and flow of ‘affluence’ between parties and groups of parties is growing in magnitude every moment and undoubtedly that is hugely facilitated by digital and social media advances. Its pretty amazing really, it’s forcing us be more proactive, more self-empowered, more united and more transparent. This is great news for us all.

    ‘Every generation needs a new revolution’ Jefferson

  • Soramimi

    Thanks for sharing these helpful perspectives! The discussion of mentoring up and symbiosis here reminds me of Simon Sinek’s take on developing mentor-mentor relationships: regular interactions in which two people mentor each other. This article also resonates with the now-prevalent discussion of forming a personal board of directors to provide clarity, feedback and accountability on personal and professional goals.

    • OldAndy

      Mentor-mentor? I call it friendship.

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  • Mentorship as You Know It Is Dead | Leadership ...

    […] There is more than one great mentor out there waiting for you. In fact, there are plenty right in front of you, and they've been here the whole time.  […]

  • Tim

    Thank you, Sasha! Finding a mentor has been a gaping hole in my leadership, but through your article I found that the model has changed. Thank you for the new information.

  • Mentorship, as you know it, is dead -

    […] Learn more about Sasha’s views on mentoring in the modern age here […]

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    […] There is more than one great mentor out there waiting for you. In fact, there are plenty right in front of you, and they've been here the whole time.  […]

  • Willem-Jan Ageling

    There is a lot of wisdom in your article. I can concur that this is the new way of mentoring.

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  • Wes Roberts

    Sasha…thank you!!! Mentoring, as we’ve known it, is dead, or at least dying. There IS a much better way. Your words as such a significant encouragement to this olde man who is 72yo. :-) The last 34 years of my life I’ve been a leadership mentor, mentoring emerging leaders from around the globe.

    One of my basic tenets is that we mentors need to also be ready to learn from those we mentor…as they will be today’s and tomorrow’s leaders long after we olders are gone. Not trying for any advertisement here, but for 34 years I’ve talked and taught mentoring from a Circle of Life perspective, looking at life in 8 dimensions, no matter what one’s age, culture, gender may be.

    Indeed there need to be new mentoring models. Hierarchy has it’s place (some times…), but not in the best of mentoring. Too many people my age were taught to be “tellers”, rarely listeners and collaborators and even explorers of thoughts and ideas, as has been offered to your generation. I ache over the fact that too many of my friends are no longer committed to belng active learners.

    Most of the men and women I mentor fall into the 20-40 ages range. Looking over the age range of those whom I do mentor, that goes from 16 to 62. I learn from each one of them. Hopefully they might say the same about my time with them.

    I also tell those whom I train to be mentors, that in our world today, we dare not be someone’s only mentor. That is way too limiting. However, I do suggest that we can be a primary mentor for a period of time…but we need to suggest other mentors for their lives according to their needs and curiosity.

    I am daily stunned and humbled by the deep privilege I have of mentoring those who have come my way. These men and women will be changing and making a difference in our world. Grateful am I to be able to cheer them on to accomplish more than they might have dreamed possible.

    Also, Sasha, next week I am speaking at an international gathering of educators on mentoring students from kindergarten through high school. I am including your excellent article in my resources and will be referencing this email to you.

    Some day I hope I can make it to a 99 Conference. I love hanging out with others who are making a difference. May you thrive in your work. Thank you for the inspiration to keep going!

  • Bev Johnson

    We know more than we can say and say more than we can write. Learning by working with an expert in our field is therefore the best way to absorb the intrinsic knowledge associated with the role.
    The role of the traditional “older, wiser” mentor can however seem hierarchical and a tad arrogant which won’t work in a networked economy where younger workers want their unique talents and ideas to rejuvenate the organisation. On the other hand the presumed expertise over all things tech that I observe in younger workers can also result in arrogance and hierarchies.

    I have addressed this through a program that has experienced workers support less experienced workers as develop their ideas into concepts to present to key stakeholders. It respects what each person brings to the situation and helps the organisation to revitalize itself using the unique talents and enthusiasm of existing staff.

  • Steven Feeney

    This is pretty much what Sheryl Sandberg said about mentors in Lean In also. If you need to ask for a mentor, you don’t have a mentor. More importantly, to be successful you don’t need a mentor; you need a sponsor to champion you to the business and the external environment.

  • narendra goidani

    What superb insights. Wow! Thanks for writing.
    With love, prayers and best wishes,

  • Mentorship as You Know It Is Dead | Mentorat | ...

    […] There is more than one great mentor out there waiting for you. In fact, there are plenty right in front of you, and they've been here the whole time.  […]

  • Webity

    Really great article! Thanks for the wisdom!

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