Mentoring is usually a long-term commitment, in which the mentor works for years, decades, or even a lifetime to provide support to the protégé.
But can it ever work as a short-term commitment? Some people, like Karie Willyerd, co-author of a Harvard Business Review guide to mentoring, believe it can. In this post, we’ll look at the arguments for and against short-term mentoring, and the best ways of making it work.
In Favor of Short-Term Mentoring
In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review, Karie Willyerd argues that “micro-mentoring” can be a great way to improve your chances of getting the mentor you want:
“Imagine yourself as a potential mentor. Which one is easier to say yes to? The person who asks, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ or someone who approaches you with, ‘I want to learn more about working directly with customers, and I’d like you to mentor me in that area for the next month with just two or three meetings. Are you available?’”
A short-term mentoring arrangement can also be a way for mentor and protégé to get to know each other – a kind of trial period for a possible longer-term relationship. It’s hard to make a good match between mentor and protégé, and a poor match is a common reason why mentorships fail. Trying it out for a few months can avoid a long-term commitment to a relationship that won’t work.
Short-term mentoring can also be a way to freshen up existing corporate mentoring programs, or to give protégés a chance to access new perspectives. In our post on innovative approaches to mentoring, we covered IBM and other companies running “speed mentoring” events, and Delta Airlines offering “in-flight mentoring.” And other organizations have experimented with “flash mentoring.” People are used to fast-paced communication in other areas of their lives, so mentoring can be adapted to fit in with that.
Against Short-Term Mentoring
Many of the most fruitful mentoring relationships take a long time to develop. Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Walter Sisulu lasted a lifetime. Oprah Winfrey met Maya Angelou as a young woman just starting out in her TV career, and continued to rely on her advice and wisdom until Angelou’s death earlier this year.
These are partnerships that deepen and become more valuable over the years. The mentor truly gets to know the protégé’s deepest desires, secrets and ambitions, and can offer guidance tailored to his or her particular strengths and weaknesses. With a short-term mentoring relationship that only consists of a few meetings, it’s difficult to achieve this level of trust and intimacy. The advice the mentor gives is likely to be more general, and one of the key advantages of mentorship is lost.
Academic studies also show that long-term mentoring is most effective. In fact, this study of youth mentoring found that short-term relationships were actually damaging to protégés, while the benefits of enterprise mentoring increased in line with the mentorship’s duration.
Willyerd is correct that sticking to a short-term arrangement will improve your chances of getting someone to agree to mentor you, as well as giving you a chance to get to know each other before embarking on a longer-term relationship. But there are other ways of achieving those objectives.
A formal workplace mentoring program with smart, software-based matching, for example, can also increase your chances of finding the right mentor. And in the absence of such a program, protégés can get to know their prospective mentors on an informal basis before asking to be mentored. Mentoring relationships should be founded on a genuine personal connection, and this can be developed naturally, without the need for a short-term mentorship. Then when you ask to be mentored, the mentor will often be happy to make a long-term commitment.
Tips for Success
If you do decide that a short-term arrangement is for you, here are some tips to make it work:
- Treat it just as you would treat a long-term mentorship, in terms of proper preparation, goal-setting and accountability. Time is limited, so you want to make the most of each session.
- Don’t expect too much. Whereas in a long-term mentoring relationship you might deal with very deep, complex issues, in just a few sessions it’s best to stick to a smaller, clearly defined and achievable goal.
- Don’t skip the personal touch. Even though it’s a short-term commitment, your mentor is still making a significant investment of his or her time and energy. You need to found the relationship on some kind of personal connection, to give the person a reason to volunteer to help you. Otherwise it’s just like asking for free coaching.
- Over-achieve. If you want this to develop into a long-term relationship, then show your mentor you take his or her advice seriously, and work hard to implement it in your life. Show up to each session with a clear report on how you listened to the guidance from the last session and took action on it. That way your mentor will be impressed with your commitment, and may offer to continue beyond the initial commitment.
- If you asked for three sessions, don’t try to stretch it into something longer-term. Simply thank your mentor for helping, say how valuable it was, and ask for advice on how to get more long-term support. If the mentor wants to continue to help you, then he or she will volunteer. If not, don’t push it.