Many of us must have used the word mentor at some point in our life. While growing up, I always heard questions like who is your mentor? And the quickest answer would be either my dad, mam, pastor, or a favorite teacher.
Over the years, mentorship has found a place in many disciplines. Today, many organizations are rooting for mentorship programs as a way of building capacities for those developing their careers. Universities are assigning continuing students to freshers as their mentors, but are they mentoring? Many organizations assign new employees to senior staff for mentoring, but is it what they do? My first job as a cook, I was attached to an experienced cook to be my mentor, but was he? My point is that many have used the word ‘mentor’ even when they are doing something different.
Nonetheless, as Hunt & Micheal (1983) note, we often turn teachers, coaches, guides, sponsors, bosses, gurus, and even relatives for advice, or protection. So, could it be that our relationship with the cited categories qualifies as a mentoring relationship? I will share my perspective of what makes a good mentor, building on the literature reviewed by Hunt & Micheal(1983). We could agree that mentorship is context-based and, therefore, will not be uniform across all disciplines. My perspective is situated in the field of academia because that is where I have had a lot of mentorships.
Who is a mentor?
Walusansa (2018) describes mentorship as an “indispensable tool for preparing, guiding, and motivating young professionals during their career development.” Regarding who a mentor is, the descriptions, as seen, are vast and contextual. However, the University of Michigan (2018) describes a mentor as someone who takes an interest in developing another person’s career and well-being; has an interpersonal as well as a professional relationship with those whom they mentor. Hunt & Micheal (1983) also describe a mentor as an individual who is successful in his/her field. But does this mean that all field experts can be mentors? Or rather good mentors? Well, the literature reviewed by Hunt & Micheal (1983) points to specific characteristics that a mentor and mentee should possess if the mentorship is to yield positive results. For now, the focus will be on the mentor, and the mentee will be for another day
If you are there looking to have a mentor, or you have one, and things are not going well, consider checking these characteristics. Age, gender, and power are the typical attributes of mentors cited in the literature. Age and age differential are said to be essential in the relationship between mentor and mentee. Studies on this characteristic reveal that the age difference should not be too vast; neither should it be narrow. When the gap is wide enough, the literature indicates there could be issues of culture and generational collision, or the relationship becomes ‘parent-child.’ Likewise, it will turn into a peer relationship if the age gap is too narrow. My experience attests to this description because, at some point, I have looked to someone 3-5 years older, and I can not recall where we left off. For good mentorship, an age difference of 8-15 years is ideal.
While the literature identifies gender as a crucial mentor attribute, I choose to use sex instead. The relationship between males and females will always be ‘complicated.’ Research indicates that most successful mentor relationships have been male-male. I have several female role models, and not any is my mentor. Based on the little male-female mentorships studied, issues of sexual tension and fears, increased public scrutiny, as well as stereotypical female/male roles have to surface and could hamper the successful mentor-mentee relationship. While there are no credible studies done on female-female mentorship, I believe there are more successful female mentors of female mentees. I encourage young female career builders to consider choosing female mentors to avoid the complexities associated with having a male mentor.
Other attributes good mentors possess are Self-confidence, organization position, and power. Hunt & Micheal (1983) note that mentors are highly placed people with an experience they wish to share but not threatened by the young Turks. Any good mentor should be able to exhibit self-confidence and professionalism, and these attributes he/she must instill them to their mentees. A good mentor should give power to the mentee, that is how you build another. Delegating is a powerful tool for boosting ones’ self-confidence. Many times, I have represented my mentors for somewhat challenging activities and tasks, but I have learned from them a great deal. “Experience is the best teacher,” yes, I agree with the saying and attest to it. Choose a mentor that will push your limits, and look out for challenging opportunities for you. Sometimes you will disappoint them and vice versa, but they will not forsake you if they do, then those are not good mentors. I have had the delight of having mentors that have my best interest at heart. That does not come so immediately, though, as I will write about mentee characteristics (some other time), mentors lookout for mentees that have aspirations for higher achievement and social similarities, among other attributes. Career growth and development thus is an interplay of a strong mutual relationship between the mentor and the mentee.
Where do we stand
Walusansa (2018) articulates that “mentorship helps young professionals to deal with the challenges that they often encounter at work or personal level.” He suggests that “deliberate efforts be made to ensure that young professionals are placed under the watch of senior staff to enhance career and personal development.” If this good suggestion is to become realistic, mentors must be real mentors. Often, the senior staff takes for granted their subordinates; teachers/facilitators in educational institutions take for granted their students/learners.
A recent study by Jjuuko et al. (2019) provides an insight into the relationship between learners and educators, and surprisingly, the findings are not far from agreeing with the assertion that there is a need for a robust cordial relationship just as one required for proper mentorship. There is a need for a model for rethinking mentorship if the mentorship programs are to be effective. It starts with identifying good mentors. For mentorship programs are geared at enhancing career and personal development, then choosing the right mentor is not an option. Look for someone with and who will improve your creativity, critical thinking & argument, writing ability, presentation & negotiation skills, and interpersonal skills.
About the blogger
Saul Tumwine is a master student of Global Development and Planning at the University of Agder, in Norway. He is a professional teacher, community organizer, and learning facilitator. He believes everyone can make an impact in their life and community.
Hunt, D. M., & Michael, C. (1983). Mentorship: A career training and development tool. Academy of Management Review, 8(3), 475-485. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.1983.4284603
Jjuuko, R., Tukundane, C., & Zeelen, J. (2019). Exploring agricultural vocational pedagogy in Uganda: students’ experiences. International Journal of Training Research, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/14480220.2019.1685161
University of Michigan (2018) How to mentor graduate students. http://www.rackham.umich.edu/downloads/publications/Fmentoring.pdf
Walusansa, B. (2018, April 9th). Why we need mentorship programmes for young professionals. The sunrise. Retrieved from: