Last week I saw about twenty different people link to this post on Penelope Trunk’s blog about mentoring and so of course I went and read it. And then I was confused. Because I was expecting kind of a how-to about mentoring, and that wasn’t exactly what it was. But Cassie Boorn (the writer) did drop this interesting gem at the end:
This is the part where I give you career advice. You can’t hide who you are and make genuine connections at work. Eventually it comes out and you make everyone around you feel like they have been duped. If you want a great career you have to have a good network and you have to have good mentors and people can’t mentor you and be your network if they don’t know you.
I suspect that’s why everyone is lauding this as a must-read piece, even though the mentoring relationship described in the article is perhaps a somewhat unconventional one. I also suspect this is part of why this piece bothers me so, because I would hate for someone who’s never experienced good mentoring to read Boorn’s words and conclude that her relationship with Trunk is the only way mentoring can or should work, which I don’t think is really true. And finally, I’m not entirely sure I even agree with the conclusion.
Here’s the thing, for me: I think mentoring can take on many different forms. I’ve had mentors where I counted those folks amongst my closest friends and I’ve had mentors who I doubted gave me a second thought unless I was standing right in front of them. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other; I think it really depends.
Now, Boorn describes hiring Trunk to be a career coach, but she also describes what sounds to me an awful lot like life coaching. And so the advice about letting yourself be known by your mentor isn’t bad advice, necessarily, but I would argue that this mentoring relationship went beyond simply discussing career aspirations—and ultimately that’s why Boorn’s other life issues became such important pieces of information. This is not the only workable scenario, though.
[Let me pause here to say that it's clear that Boorn hired Trunk precisely because of that... shall we say... bleed-through of other aspects of life to career issues for which Trunk is already well-known. And the relationship has clearly worked for her. My issue here is that I would not consider this a standard mentoring relationship, and for someone who has not yet found a mentor I would hate for this to sound typical.]
In my experience, mentors are rarely one-size-fits-all or one-person-knows-all. I’m a huge believer in mentoring—being mentored, myself, and mentoring others—but unless you’re handing yourself over to a “life coach” I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to have different sorts of relationships with different people. For example: I often mentor fledgling freelancers about finding work. In 95% of those cases, we talk about work and little else. I don’t care about their love lives, their favorite snack foods, or what color socks they’re wearing. It’s not germaine to why we’re communicating, and it never comes up. Similarly, if any of those folks started calling me at home at 6:30 in the morning, I’d be annoyed and feel like they were crossing boundaries into my personal life. They just aren’t that sort of relationship.
There are folks who have mentored me, career-wise, who know all about my life and some who know nothing about me past my career history. I couldn’t tell you I learned more from one type than the other. It depends on the needs of the current situation, sometimes, and is just irrelevant, other times. If I need career advice from someone while grappling with a personal issue that affects my ability to work, then sure, someone with whom I have a more comprehensive relationship may be the better mentor at that time. But a lot of the time, what a person needs is advice that can stand alone on a given topic.
If this isn’t making sense to you, turn it around: There are strong women in my life whom I consider mothering mentors. I value their experience, their friendship, their willingness to share with me. Would I ask them for advice on a work assignment? Obviously not. It’s not their bailiwick. And it doesn’t need to be for them to be useful to me. See?
So why does this matter? It matters because there’s “letting people know you” and “being yourself” and then there’s “knowing appropriate boundaries in a given situation.” Boorn’s article makes me worry that readers could come away with the sense that mentoring can only happen in situations where you’re willing to lay everything out there. It’s not quite that simple. Be open, yes. If you trust your mentor, then really trust your mentor, yes. But also remember that some (most?) mentoring relationships occupy a fairly narrow band of life experience, and there may be good and appropriate reasons for them to stay that way.
Maybe you end up with several mentors, and maybe what you discuss with one never comes up with another. Or maybe—like Boorn—you end up with a situation where you have a mentor with whom you forge and all-encompassing, comprehensive relationship. I don’t know that one is better than the other. I just know that there’s lots of different ways for mentoring to work, and forging a hive mind about everything under the sun isn’t necessarily a requirement.
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