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How anyone can be a mentor

Mentoring needn't be the traditional older-young worker pairing. Several styles of mentorship can be equally, if not more, successful.

4 min read


Fain what is a mentor

Amy Hirschi/Unsplash 

This post is by Lisa Z. Fain in partnership with Weaving Influence, a full-service digital marketing agency. Since launching 10 years ago, Weaving Influence has helped clients launch more than 150 books, carving its niche in working with authors, thought leaders, coaches, consultants, trainers, nonprofit leaders and speakers to market their services and books.

When I ask new or prospective mentoring pairs to picture a great mentor, often images of a “sage on the stage” come to mind. They picture someone who tells tales of battles won and lost, trials and tribulations over time, offering Yoda-like truth bombs such as, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”  Or, “Decide, you must, how to serve them best.” Indeed, there are many wonderful lessons to learn from our elders, but defining a mentor in this way misses the mark.

Although the image that first pops to mind is that of a wise elder, the traits ascribed to a good mentor belie this narrow picture. When I ask mentors and mentees to articulate the qualities they view as essential in a good mentor, they often name wisdom, experience, the ability to learn, listening without judgment, a commitment to the relationship and the ability to extend and earn trust. These descriptors paint a picture not of an authority who prescribes a learning journey limited to their own life experiences, but of someone who facilitates a mentee’s learning by being a “guide on the side.”

Styles of mentoring

We are seeing this play out more and more in how organizations embrace mentoring. In addition to the traditional one-on-one mentoring relationships in which a more senior mentor is paired with a more junior mentee, organizations are adopting lesser-known mentoring configurations, like peer mentoring, mentoring circles and, a personal favorite, complementary mentoring.  These alternative mentoring configurations help us think differently about who is a mentor.

Peer mentoring. The element of seniority is eliminated. Peer mentoring can either happen in dyads or in larger groups that have either one peer mentor or members mentoring each other. Typically this style features a commonality of title, experience or cohort.

Mentoring circles. One mentor facilitates the learning of a group of mentees. Sometimes mentoring circle discussions are designed around designated topics. Either way, all mentees in the most successful mentoring circles articulate learning goals and intentionally learn from and support each other as well as the designated mentor.

Complementary mentoring. No configuration helps us understand the role of a mentor as a facilitator more than complementary mentoring, once called reverse mentoring. It is a relationship in which senior employees tap into the knowledge of a younger or a more diverse group of employees, providing the more senior mentee with new perspectives and the more junior mentees with exposure and insights about the organization. The term “reverse” reinforces an outdated view that mentoring is the transference of knowledge from old to young and minimizes the potential benefit for the mentee. Complementary, which means combining in a way that enhances or emphasizes both parties, reflects the mutuality and exchange that happens in this type of relationship.

What makes someone wise isn’t their age; it is their experience. When we seek wisdom, what we are really looking for is someone who can provide a new perspective. What makes for a good mentor is their willingness and ability to share that learning in a way that meets a mentee’s learning goals. We don’t need to wait for Yoda.

Lisa Z. Fain is the CEO of Center for Mentoring Excellence and the co-author of The Mentor’s Guide and Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring. She is a global speaker on the power of mentoring to transform workplace cultures.


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