When Mentoring is not the Answer

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

Mentors are tremendous resources, both for individuals and organizations. Mentors help protégés make connections, think through difficult issues, and set long term goals. Mentors help organizations by guiding junior members, strengthening both knowledge and social capital, and creating commitment among protégés. With benefits like these, it is not uncommon for a manager to declare that “everyone should have a mentor”. While a good sentiment, there are many times when mentoring is not the answer.

Good mentors are both precious and finite resources in most organizations: there are only so many to go around (for more on whether you are ready for mentoring, read our earlier post here). If you only have twenty mentors in your organization, wouldn’t you want them mentoring those who will make best use of their talents? There are many individuals who would be better served by another development resource other than a mentor:

  • New to the role or company: Individuals who have just joined organizations or have started new jobs will often have learning curves ahead of them. They are absorbing organizational culture and group norms. They are learning expectations of their work groups and bosses. These individuals are often “drinking from the fire hose” for the first three to six months. Their questions are better answered by the boss or a peer coach (sometimes an assigned “buddy”) who can show them the ropes and get them acclimated. They will not be ready to appreciate the perspective that a mentor can bring until they can get their footing and the newness has worn off.
  • Closing a knowledge or skill gap: Mentors can be great teaching resources and are often called on to help protégés learn new skills (e.g., presentation or time management). However, if the goal of mentoring is to close these smaller gaps, the full potential of the mentor will not likely be realized. Once the skill has been learned or knowledge transferred, the mentee may not have interest in developing the relationship further or having the more strategic discussion with the mentor. If you are trying to close gaps like these, look to training or coaching to help.
  • Checking the box: Many individuals sign up for mentoring programs because they think having a mentor is something you should do, not because they are truly interested or invested in their own development. Worse, some organizations make having a mentor (or being one) a requirement for advancement. In these cases, the individual is not likely to bring the drive to get the most out of mentoring.
  • Looking for a job: Mentors can be great resources for someone searching for a job. They have connections; they can give feedback on résumés; they can help formulate a job search strategy. If you are in a job search, you should definitely tap into existing mentoring partnerships. But, a job search is usually not the time to initiate a new mentoring relationship. These mentees are often very focused on the near term objective of finding a position and are not as concerned with building up the long term relationship with a new mentor. Also, a new mentor may feel some obligation to helping the mentee tap into his or her network without really knowing the mentee, creating some risks for the mentor. In the end, these partnerships often end when the goal has been achieved (the mentee found a job).
In each of these instances, a mentor could help the individual. But, if you have a limited number of mentors, you would probably be better served meeting these needs through other means and reserving mentors for individuals interested in longer term development. In a formal program, if you have a mentor matched with someone in one of these situations, you may not only be underutilizing the power of that mentor, you are also depriving someone else of a mentor who would have made better use of mentoring. If you are pursuing your own mentor, or if you are facilitating mentoring in your organization, you should consider these scenarios and make sure mentoring really is the answer.