Mentorships can be exceptional experiences that provide mutual satisfaction and learning. Mentorships can either be formal onboarding relationships required by a new employee’s organization, where a new employee is assigned a mentor who has more work experience. That veteran employee can help a new hire circumvent rookie mistakes and accelerate a new person’s learning in a specific content area and, more generally, help someone navigate the unfamiliar culture of the organization. Or, a mentorship can be informal, where someone with less experience has an ongoing professional relationship with a veteran in the same or related field, who may or may not be a part of the same organization. Informal mentorships happen more organically, flowing from a mentor’s desire to nurture younger talent and return the help that he or she received from someone at an earlier professional stage, while a mentee has an intuitive feeling that this informal mentor has no agenda other than to be of professional support.
Mentorships are different from coaching relationships, where typically an external expert is hired for a limited engagement to help an individual deepen self-insight into characteristics and habits that get in the way of better performance, to help with a specific skill, or provide alternative ways of framing issues that yield ideas or solutions that a coaching client could not see before. Coaching relationships are designed to support an individual who seeks growth in embracing a new challenge and deeper insight into one’s professional persona – the one that a person has acquired, or a latent one that a person decides to develop – at any stage of life. One of the essential differences between a mentorship and a coaching relationship is that the latter has a clear contractual beginning, middle and end with measurable goals. Mentorships can become messy because they are much more fluid.
That’s why successful mentorships require security on the part of the mentor, and maturity on the part of the mentee because a mentoring relationship has a shelf life. A secure mentor knows when it’s time to gradually create some distance with a mentee, so that person can begin to acquire greater self-confidence, self-awareness, and expertise. Someone who is accustomed to being mentored may experience that distancing as an unexpected lack of caring when it is actually an act of deep professional concern for the well-being and growth of a younger colleague.
And some mentees are too eager to assert independence of personality. They unknowingly rupture a relationship with a mentor through indifference to how much he or she has benefited from the experiences and relationships cultivated through a mentor. These relationships become complicated when mentors are reluctant or unable to know when to intentionally decrease their influence so that the mentee can begin to increase her or his independence and develop an authentic persona. If a mentor lacks that self-awareness, the person being mentored may need to more abruptly end the relationship, creating an atmosphere of awkwardness and causing a mentor to feel underappreciated. But in the best of all worlds, a healthy mentoring relationship evolves and both parties begin to transition from a more hierarchical relationship to a peer-to-peer relationship.
I’ve been thinking about some of my own coaching and mentoring relationships, both as a receiver and as a giver, during this time in the cycle of Torah readings, when we’re reading about the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the promised land. What might have been a relatively brief trip turned into a disastrous forty-year period of wandering. I wondered if the father-in-law of Moses, Jethro or Yitro in Hebrew, might have made a difference in the tumultuous relationship that Moses and the Jewish people experienced that turned their trip into a forty-year trek. Moses clearly respected his father-in-law’s wisdom and experience and takes his advice in establishing a court system that was not solely reliant upon Moses (see Exodus 18). Yet, it appears that despite Moses’s pleading to Yitro that he helps him navigate this desert terrain, Yitro declines (Numbers 9:29-32). I’d like to think that Yitro’s primary motivation for refusing to remain with Moses is that he doesn’t want to stunt his son-in-law’s potential that he (Moses) can’t yet see in himself. He knows that his son-in-law cannot actualize his own leadership potential if Moses remains in Yitro’s shadow.
A mentor can have a lifelong influence. Even after a mentor passes away, if you’ve had an especially fortunate experience with a mentor, you can still feel the presence and guidance of that person. You internalize aspects of someone’s exemplary character and wisdom and express them in your own unique way. But that only happens when a mentor practices tzimtzum or self-contraction, so that the mentee can develop into a full person in her or his own right.