Business Mentoring Matters

Informal Mentoring: A Personal Story

Posted on Tue, Oct, 03, 2017

Normally at Management Mentors, we focus on formal mentoring. But informal mentoring can be effective—and is often a great introduction to the wonders of mentoring. I should know, because that's exactly how it happened for me.

Here's my story…

In 1973, when I was twenty-five, I worked as a mail clerk for a company in the health care industry. It had been a few years since I'd left the religious brotherhood with its routine and stable lifestyle, and now I found myself in a complicated world. The era of social unrest and uncertainty sweeping the nation reflected my own inner turmoil: I felt adrift with no real direction.

That is until I met Bruce.

Bruce was a recent college graduate with a bachelor's degree in health administration. He interned for the same organization where I sorted and delivered the mail, and he quickly became a full-time employee in upper management. Bruce and I were similar ages and Hand with marker writing the word Beautiful Minds Inspire Others.jpegshared common interests, including politics and movies, so we ended up chatting quite a bit. We often talked about what was happening in Vietnam and how the country was so polarized.

One day, about a year or so after we met, Bruce said he recommended me for the recently vacated HR director position. I was stunned. I had no experience in HR. But Bruce assured me that I would do a good job. He explained that I had all the qualities the position required, I could learn any requisite skills as I went along, and he would support me every step of the way.

He was right about everything. I did land the job, and I was able to handle it. And Bruce was indeed there for me when I needed to talk, when I wanted to bounce ideas off someone, and when I desired honest feedback and insights. He watched me transform professionally and personally, always reminding me that I was responsible for the actual transformation; he merely served as a conduit.

Bruce was my mentor. I didn't have this epiphany until many years later, which is sometimes the case with informal mentoring—you don't realize you're "in it" or that you've "done it" until much later. Other times, informal mentoring is more deliberate: two people purposely seek each other out.

Remember, humans are primed to mentor. Yet while mentoring does come naturally to most of us, it does help to understand the basics, including what it is (and isn't) and what makes for an effective mentor.

So what is mentoring? The mentoring concept is not new. In Homer's The Odyssey, Odysseus tasks his trusted friend and advisor, Mentor, with watching over Telemachus, Odysseus's son, while Odysseus is on his decades-long sojourn. And, thus, the mentoring concept was born.

I define mentoring as a professional relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) assists a less-experienced person (the mentoree) in transforming professionally and personally. Mentoring involves regular discussions and debates, increased self-awareness, and acquisition of specific skills or knowledge.

My experience with Bruce demonstrates the definition perfectly. We had a work-based relationship where I had the room to transform personally and professionally, thanks to Bruce's support, insight, and wisdom.

Within mentoring itself, you'll find two categories: formal mentoring and informal mentoring. Formal mentoring takes place within an organization through a designed program. The organization assigns a person or team to develop, design, and launch a program that someone from the team closely monitors. The mentoring program manager matches mentors and mentorees.

Informal mentoring, on the other hand, is much more casual, not to mention it's "off the books." Two people (from the same organization or different organizations) come together and decide what they want to focus on, how they want to approach the relationship, and so forth. Often, the mentoring happens organically without any premeditation at all. Bruce and I were firmly entrenched in an informal mentoring relationship.

So, bottom line: informal mentoring can be extremely rewarding and life changing. However, in the confines of an organization, where you have many people worthy of mentoring or being mentored, it does make sense to have a more formal program. Often, both types of mentoring will take place concurrently, and that's perfectly OK: while you have a formal mentoring program for those who want to participate, don't hinder two people who naturally connect and take part in an informal mentoring relationship. Both can work!

Fourth quarter is officially here! Now's a great time to review your current mentoring program and/or figure out how you want to approach mentoring in 2018. I offer free one-hour consults to organizations to discuss their mentoring programs and answer questions. Request your free chat today.

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Tags: informal mentoring, formal mentoring