Mentoring is routinely hailed as a critical tool for honing talents for greater things – or even simply new things. But for one entrepreneur at least, it has its limits.
In a 16 October Forbes interview,  business networking strategist Erica Dhawan (lead interviewee in The Institute of Leadership & Management’s 2017 Drucker Special Report) bluntly and provocatively advises: “Forget mentorship.”
She elaborates: “In my view, mentors are great, but you have to remember that mentors give you advice based on their worldview. When I was shifting from being an investment banker to being a leadership consultant, speaker and author, my mentors couldn’t help. They saw me in an old worldview. They saw me as an ex-employee of Lehman Brothers. They saw me as someone with a business and policy degree – I should go work at McKinsey or the World Bank. They couldn’t see me and who I was becoming.”
Asked where she thinks the current “obsession” with mentorship comes from, she tells Forbes: “I think it comes from a lack of work on yourself to figure out what you want.”
The journal boils down Dhawan’s perspective as: “Don’t focus on mentors; instead listen to yourself and think about who you are becoming and how you can surround yourself on a regular basis with the type of people you want to be like.”
However, in a recent Director magazine overview of mentoring,  Enter the Arena CEO Julia Elliott Brown stresses that it is a two-way relationship. She says: “It’s so temping to hear a problem and say: “I know the answer. Here’s what to do.” But you have to learn how to help people find their own way. The mentee should be doing most of the talking.”
In the same piece, Elliott Brown’s own mentor – Wilson Partners director Ross Wilson – notes: “Our mentees must drive the scheme in order to reap the maximum benefit. This way they fully engage with the process, which pays handsome dividends for them, the firm and me as a mentor too.
He adds: “It is vital that everyone understands what mentoring is and, crucially, what it isn’t. The opportunity it provides to bounce ideas around, engage in role-play exercises, discuss a tricky problem etc is designed to challenge mentees, not to provide them with solutions, which is the job of a trainer or coach.”
What are the other, key characteristics of best-practice mentoring?
The Institute’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Just as we have constant and never-concluded debates around the questions ‘What is leadership?’ and ‘What is management?’, we also have quite active ones around ‘What is mentoring?’ and ‘What is coaching?’ I have a lot of sympathy for what Dhawan is saying: in many ways, she’s critiquing what we would now deem to be a rather outdated notion of what mentoring is.”
Cooper notes: “when Dhawan was changing industries, it probably wasn’t a mentor that she needed, but a coach: someone who could help her ask all the right questions – and develop her own answers – as a means of setting the tone for her new venture.”
She points out: “if you have stayed in an organisation or industry for a long time, a more seasoned individual in the same field could really illuminate your path by sharing their experiences. But that notion is incredibly one-way. A lot of evidence shows that what really helps people get on is not necessarily mentoring, but sponsorship. Now, a mentor and a sponsor could absolutely be the same person – but the activity is quite different. A sponsor will give you a high profile within the organisation by highlighting you to senior figures, and by introducing you to big opportunities on major projects. You get to have a go, and they have your back. That has been consistently revealed as a key contributor to career success.”
In parallel, Cooper explains, leaders should never overlook the importance of reverse-mentoring. “If I think back to our Untapped Talent report,” she says, “reverse-mentoring was mentioned there as a means of pairing older and younger members of a workforce for mutual benefit and knowledge sharing. So, the older partner conveys their seasoned, career-long insights to the younger one and, at the same time, the younger one shares their expertise with, say, social media platforms, or other digital tools. Under that arrangement, learning becomes a cross-generational experience.”
She adds: “As the Institute has said for a while now, any sort of mentoring relationship should have a double benefit. It’s not just about one individual downloading their knowledge into an eager, young recipient. It is no doubt a great pleasure for an older worker to relive their finest moments in the company of someone newer to the game. But as the newer individual will be working in a very different context that has evolved a great deal, those war stories may not always be of as much help to that person as the older worker may hope. Indeed, our view for some time has been that mentoring isn’t mentoring unless it has a substantial, two-way element.”
For further thoughts on mentoring, check out these learning resources from the Institute