From Ancient Greece to the Corporate Workforce: the Meaning of Mentorship

By Mike BergelsonFebruary 4, 2014

In declaring January 2013 National Mentoring Month, the White House gave an interesting definition of mentoring. According to the proclamation, mentoring’s purpose is to “enrich the lives of our young people and fortify the unbreakable bonds between one generation and the next.”

It’s a nice line, but only tells part of the story. After all, it’s not only young people who can benefit from mentoring. Some of our protégés here at Everwise are in their forties and fifties and some of our mentors are in their twenties and thirties. For us, it’s not about bonds between generations, but bonds between people.

What exactly are those bonds? What defines a mentoring relationship?

The Original Mentor

A good place to start is with the very first mentor, who appears in Greek mythology. When Odysseus disappeared to fight the Trojan War and then went on his ten-year odyssey, he entrusted his friend, who was named Mentor, with the task of bringing up his son. Mentor did such a good job (with the help of the goddess Athena) that his name passed into many European languages to describe someone who acts as a trusted counselor or guide for someone younger or less experienced.

So far so good for the White House’s definition: The original mentoring relationship was indeed inter-generational. But the term has also evolved a little in the last few thousand years. Let’s look at some more recent examples.

Different types of mentoring

Mentoring has taken off in recent decades, both in the workplace and in social settings. Here are just a few examples of how mentoring has evolved and acquired new meanings:

  1. Peer mentoring: Colleagues of a similar level of experience can often mentor each other very effectively. They may lack the experience of more senior people, but they can learn new things together and collaborate to overcome obstacles. Khan Academy, an online childhood education organization, makes great use of peer mentoring to encourage students to help each other, reinforcing their own learning in the process.
  2. Group mentoring: Although mentoring relationships are commonly one to one, group mentoring is another option. Members of the group support each other on their goals, share experiences and hold each other accountable. These groups can sometimes meet online, too, increasing their reach. What you lose in the lack of an individual relationship you gain by the wisdom of the crowd. The Everwise Answers community is an example of this type of mentoring online, while organizations like Vistage and YPO organize physical group mentoring meetings.
  3. Reverse mentoring: As the name suggests, this is a complete reversal of the traditional roles. The young person in this case is the mentor, and the more senior person is the one learning new skills or attitudes. This is growing in popularity as the pace of technological and social change increases. The younger generation are the ones navigating the latest changes, and can have a lot to teach people who grew up in a very different environment. Jack Welch was a big proponent of this in his days as chief executive of General Electric. He had an employee in her 20s teach him how to surf the Web, and matched his top executives with younger employees too.

A new definition for mentoring

Clearly things have come a long way since Odysseus went off to fight the Trojan War. But despite all these developments and all these different views on mentoring, there’s some common ground in all of them.

No matter whether the mentoring is one to one or in groups, and no matter what the relative levels of experience:

Mentoring is the process through which two or more people to share knowledge and experiences. When done right, everyone grows from the interaction.

That’s a definition everyone can agree on…

Or is it? If you have a different take on mentoring, let us know!

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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