Seven lessons in mentorship

  • February 23, 2015
Seven lessons in mentorship

Mentorship is all the talk in professional development and leadership circles, but what does real mentorship look like? And how do you go about building mentoring relationships? We assembled a distinguished panel to discuss these questions with Gates Cambridge scholars and this is what we learned. 

Mentorship sounds warm and fuzzy, but it’s a slippery concept. Practices that appear similar at first can be quite different on closer examination. Coaching, emerging from a tradition of American sport, focuses more on improving performance as a craft.  Apprenticeships, with their origins in pre-Industrial Age Europe, involve direct training and observation often of a specific technical skill.  Advising might come close, but advisors are often transient. They might help navigate a specific situation or blind spot, but then move on.

A recent panel organised by the Gates Cambridge professional development programme served as a platform to understand the concept of mentorship and identify some helpful lessons.

Lesson #1: What is mentorship? Look to the cultural traditions of South Asia for a possible model.

One speaker suggested that we learn from the “guru-shishya” model for relationships to understand the concept of mentorship. Borrowed from the cultural traditions of South Asia, the guru (mentor) and shishya (mentee) relationship has two features worth noting. First is the idea of cycles – learned wisdom and experience is being passed onward, much like in a baton race. The second builds on the first point and goes further: even though the guru and shishya have disparate levels of experience, the two are brought together in a relationship as equals participating in collaborative learning. This mutual respect and commitment to each other – bounded by a sense of shared values or interests – drives the mentorship forward.

Lesson #2: Great mentors build your confidence by helping you come up with the answers.

Effective mentors aren’t one-way transmitters of experience (though their experience certainly helps!). Neither does a mentor need to be an expert in your field or craft. But they’ll know to ask the right questions and then help you arrive at the answers. Together, you and your mentor can explore any number of topics. For example, you might focus on “growing edges” – the areas in which you want to develop further expertise or knowledge. Mentors can also help you figure out “how things work”, such as with finding life balance, tackling new challenges at work, or deciding on a career or job change. The insights that come from this relationship should help build your confidence as you pursue your goals. Such mentoring relationships can have varying levels of formality – from mutually defined expectations to more informal meet-ups – and it’s a shared responsibility to define this as needed.

Lesson #3: To be a mentee, try mentoring yourself.

Even if you’re early in your career journey, you’ve got wisdom and experience that someone else will find valuable. Look within your communities and you’re likely to find a possible mentee – someone trying to find their first job, apply to college or graduate school or navigate a new field of work or study. Develop empathy for the practices described above, and pay the cycle of support forward. Who knows? You might even find that you end up mentoring one of your mentors!

Lesson #4: Before trying to find a mentor, define short and/or long-term goals.

Approaching a mentor with a few concrete goals will help the mentor know where to begin and ensure that you aren’t wasting their time. If you’re unsure of where you want to go in the next few years, you can still identify a few short-term goals – learning a skill or getting experience in a certain job or sector. If you’re less sure of these short-term goals, but have a sense for longer-range trajectories, a mentor can help you in figuring out what those near term actions might be.

Lesson #5: “Kiss a lot of frogs”. 

Brought to you by the Brothers Grimm, it’s a simple point but worth emphasising: you might end up meeting a lot of possible mentors before the right relationship sparks. Some might push a line of advice too hard, others may simply not have the time to truly invest, and sometimes areas of commonality that you thought might be present don’t materialise. But rather than sit and wait for mentors to appear in your life, be active in your college and work communities. Those are the places you’ll find your next mentor.

Lesson #6: Reciprocity and gratitude seem obvious, so practise them!

Mentors are taking time amidst busy schedules and competing demands to support you in your growth. Gratitude and reciprocity is a must. As you develop your relationship with your mentor, figure out ways you can show this – there’s no formula and the main point is simply to do what you feel is genuine.

Lesson #7: Mentoring relationships can have many arcs.  

The natural arc of a mentoring relationship can lead into multiple possibilities – professional collaborations, friendship that widens to family or acquaintances and the occasional meet-up. If your career path or interests have changed in significant ways or taken you in a new direction, this might also mean that your mentors will change too. Even in these cases, past mentoring relationships can evolve into a longer-term friendship.

There are no magic solutions when it comes to thriving in the face of doubt and difficulty, but building on a mentor’s wisdom and experience can be a great place to start.

*Victor Roy [2009] is a Gates Cambridge scholar as a PhD student in sociology and political economy at the University of Cambridge focusing on innovation in health. He is co-directing (with Andrea Cabrero) Gates Cambridge’s scholar development programme. He is also an MD candidate at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans. Follow him on Twitter:@victorroy.  Picture credit: Stuart Miles and

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