Mentorship isn’t teaching—it’s sharing the wisdom you’ve earned

12 Jun 2023 · 4 min read
Potential mentors may have imposter syndrome, but empathy, vulnerability, and generosity are what create a mutually beneficial professional relationship.
Michelle Lagrave image

Written by

Michelle Lagrave, Global Leadership Development Lead, Integrated Talented Management, People & Culture

Mentoring is not teaching landscape

If you were asked to consider mentoring, how would you feel? Fearful? Flattered? Confused as to what it would involve?

The word “mentor” might conjure up thoughts of tutoring, training, or coaching, but it doesn’t need to be any of those things. The purpose of a mentor is to be a trusted counselor or guide, a role which transcends hierarchy.

In my current role at Philip Morris International, I’ve been facilitating the expansion and development of iGrow, our in-house mentoring program. Finding mentees has always been easy, but convincing people they’re mentor material is trickier.

One inspiring mentor initially insisted, ‘But I’m not an expert!’ I told him that, rather than experts, we wanted professionals willing to be vulnerable, open, and ready to share their mistakes—and learnings—with others.

No matter how high you’ve climbed, many of us occasionally suffer from imposter phenomenon, and women, or those from underrepresented groups, are more likely to lack confidence in themselves. A 2022 study by KPMG found three quarters of female executives have experienced imposter syndrome at some point.

Many participants on the iGrow program today initially turned down the chance to mentor as they didn’t believe they were experienced or senior enough. One inspiring mentor I invited to speak recently at a company mentorship event initially insisted, “But I’m not an expert!” I told him I wasn’t looking for experts—I was looking for professionals willing to be vulnerable, open about their working experiences, and ready to share their mistakes—and learnings—with others.

Michelle Lagrave,
Global Leadership Development Lead,
Integrated Talented Management,
People & Culture, Philip Morris International

Empathy—the skill that keeps on giving

Being a mentor doesn’t necessarily require a senior job title, as some leaders may not be comfortable ticking those three boxes. Mentoring a peer, or, more traditionally, a junior colleague, isn’t always about teaching them new skills. It’s about recognizing and responding to the mentee’s need to be heard, and helping them grow as an individual.

A good mentor has the empathy to ask pertinent questions so their mentee can find their own solutions. No training course can address individual needs in the way a professional human interaction can. As Steven Spielberg said: “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”1

And, of course, the mentor can benefit hugely from the relationship, whether it’s traditional, peer-to-peer, or reverse mentoring. They get satisfaction from helping someone progress professionally, and they learn about what challenges others may be facing.

A key element of mentorship is encouraging the mentee to overcome any self-doubt that may be hindering their career development. Someone could have all the so-called ‘skills’ their job requires, but personality traits or even things in their personal life may be holding them back from fulfilling their ambition. This is where a mentor can help, by offering that supportive ear to just listen, while sharing their own experiences of failure and success.

The advantage of an outsider’s advice

Providing an outsider’s perspective is crucial to good mentoring. We can all get stuck in silos or team politics, or become pigeon-holed as a “certain type” of professional. Mentoring allows us to connect with someone from a completely different team, function, or even country, for those of us who work for multinational organizations.

Mentoring allows us to break structural barriers within the workplace and fosters inclusion by connecting very different people across the professional spectrum. Many of us have a work persona or a “mask” that could be completely different to how we behave and interact in our personal lives. But mentees, if they’re not afraid to be vulnerable, can be their authentic selves and reveal what they think may be hindering them at work, or simply find someone removed from their immediate team who can give an alternative, and objective, point of view.

Many development opportunities in business have KPIs bolted on. But mentorship should have none, meaning the pressure is off—allowing both mentors and mentees to enter into the partnership saying: “This is who I am, and this is what I can offer.”

So, the next time someone approaches you to be a mentor, ignore any knee-jerk response and ask your potential mentee what they’re looking for. Only they can tell you if you fit the bill.

Have you taken big decisions about your career? Have you suffered failures and/or achieved success? Are you a good listener? If you can answer “yes,” it sounds like you’d be a great mentor, so why not give it a try?

1 CINEMA: PETER PAN GROWS UP BUT CAN HE STILL FLY? - TIME Interview with TIME magazine by Richard Corliss and Jeffrey Ressner, May 19, 1997.

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