4 min read


Uncle Iroh was a good mentor. All credit to Nickelodeon

I might not be officially responsible for people anymore, but that doesn't mean I'm completely out of the game. I still have plenty of wisdom to dispense.

I mean, I think I do anyway.

Mentoring someone is a great opportunity to share the lessons that you have learned over your illustrious career. Lessons typically earned through blood, sweat and tears.

Not all mentoring relationships are the same though, and it's useful to understand the differences so you can set the appropriate expectations for both the person involved and for yourself.

I Was Never Angry With You

The first sort of mentoring relationship is the casual one.

In this relationship, you catchup regularly with the person in question, listening to whatever they have to say, answering any questions as best you can and generally just being there to support them through their own trials and tribulations.

From the mentor's perspective, this relationship is reactive. The person comes to you with questions and situations that they want guidance on, and you draw from your pool of experience in order to provide perspective and options for how to move forward.

As a result, it's probably the easiest one to make time for, as there is very little preparation involved. All you really need to do is carve out a bit of time on a regular basis.

Don't underestimate the impact that you can have from a casual mentoring relationship though.

Aside from dispensing prodigious amounts of wisdom from your massive pool of experience, even just listening to someone as they talk about their problems can be highly beneficial.

Like having a rubber-duck that can talk.

Casual mentoring relationships do have their limits though, and the main one is that they are highly dependent on the person in question actually thinking about things ahead of time and coming to you with questions or thoughts that you can respond to.

As a mentor, sometimes you need to take a more proactive stance.

I Was Afraid You'd Lost Your Way

The second sort of mentoring relationship is structured mentoring.

In this relationship you still catchup regularly with the person in question, but conversations trend more towards tracking progress towards a specific goal, one that you both agreed on at the start of the engagement.

That makes this sort of engagement a lot more proactive from the perspective of the mentor. They are in the driver's seat: they take the goal, work with the person to create a plan and then hold the person accountable as necessary.

As a result, this sort of engagement can be very effort intensive.

In the initial stages, you have to spend time and effort understanding what goal the person should target and then creating a plan based on that goal. There is nuance in creating the plan too, which requires extra effort, because you want it to be achievable but also a bit of a stretch, so that the person is forced to grow in order to follow it.

After that, you have to track progress against the plan closely; you hold the person accountable to what was agreed upon, motivate them to keep going, and make any adjustments as necessary to keep things moving forward in the right direction.

The thing to watch out for when doing structured mentoring is accidentally doing too much.

You want to use your experience to create a paved path for the person to follow, and to gently nudge them back towards it if they wander off. You don't want to provide detailed instructions on how to do everything on that path, or, start doing the actual work for them.

If you do, the person won't grow, which defeats the entire point of mentoring them in the first place.

The Best Way To Solve Your Own Problems

The third sort of mentoring relationship is subtle mentoring

In this relationship you help someone to grow without them even really realising it. You don't have scheduled catchups and you might only interact with the person obliquely, if at all.

Seems like a weird relationship, right?

Subtle mentoring is basically like being a guardian angel for someone; you keep an eye on them, engineer opportunities for them to stretch themselves and find ways to make sure that they get the guidance that they need to be more awesome.

It's easily the most difficult sort of mentoring, requiring a bunch of effort from you as the mentor to influence the overarching situation, without giving you any of the positive feedback that often comes from directly interacting with the person in question.

So why bother at all?

Every now and then you might notice someone that has potential or expresses a desire to want to be better, but you're not in a position where you can help them directly. Maybe they don't want to enter into a mentoring relationship for some reason or maybe the politics of the organisation don't make such a relationship possible.

In those cases, you don't have to just give up and move on with your life. If you honestly believe that the person would be better off with you guiding them, even indirectly and from a distance, you can choose to do that.

Be careful though, as the main limitation of this sort of mentoring is how easy it is to screw it up.

It's only one very small step from subtle mentoring to plain old manipulation, and people don't like to be manipulated.

I'm not here to make your decisions for you, but be aware that if you engage in this sort of mentoring, you are playing with fire.

And fire doesn't like to be played with.

Is To Help Someone Else

For me, most of my mentoring relationships are of the casual nature. I rock up, listen, answer questions and provide guidance. Every now and then I might do a little bit of preparation, but it's uncommon.

This works for me because I'm pretty good at improvising and thinking on my feet. It also seems to work pretty well for the people I mentor, at least as far as I can tell.

More generally though, if you're capable of doing it, mentoring is a great opportunity to have wide-ranging impact. Helping other people to be more awesome is an act of multiplication that continues to generate benefit long after the actual mentoring relationship finishes.

Like planting a tree that won't be fully grown until you're well and truly gone.

You might not get to enjoy the shade it provides, but the next generation will definitely appreciate your efforts.