Your career is a journey. Along the way, you’ll hit stumbling blocks, pitfalls, and detours. Having someone to help you navigate career challenges can make an enormous difference. Whether you’re setting goals or detangling a thorny work problem, asking for help can improve your decision-making and unblock you.
One way to get this help is through mentorship.
What is mentorship?
Mentorship involves one person (a mentor) offering their time and experience to another person to help that person grow or develop in their career.
Mentorship can take many forms, as we’ll see below, but in general, a mentor asks questions, provides advice, and shares their experiences with someone seeking career help.
Mentorship is distinct from teaching, coaching, and sponsorship.
- Teaching is a formal sharing of knowledge from a teacher to a student. Teaching involves specific roles (student and teacher) and power dynamics.
- Coaching is a relationship between a hired expert (coach) and a client. The coach helps the client craft a career plan, set goals, and execute those goals.
- Sponsorship is when one person advocates for another person to get hired, earn a promotion, or receive recognition for work well done.
In short, a teacher instructs; a coach guides; a sponsor promotes.
Types of mentorship
Mentorship isn’t one-size-fits-all. Mentorship can come in many shapes and sizes. The types of mentorship below aren’t mutually exclusive; they can stack on top of one another. You might have an internal, remote, traditional mentor, or you might have an external, in-person, informal mentor. There is no right or wrong, only what works best for you and your mentor.
Internal vs. external
Mentors can either be within your company (internal) or outside your organization (external).
Internal mentors are often assigned through formal company mentorship programs. These mentorship programs might feature a set structure and outcomes, or they might be informal where a more experienced employee offers mentorship to a more junior one.
Often, internal mentorship is geared toward more junior employees to help them learn the ins and outs of working at a company. This kind of mentorship can also help them navigate the workplace for the first time.
In-person vs. remote
These days, a lot of mentorship is available remotely, through teleconferencing or phone calls. Multiple mentorship platforms, like Merit, make it easy to connect with prospective mentors online to chat over Zoom or Google Hangouts.
In-person mentorship still happens! Conversations can often feel richer or more personal when you’re sitting across from someone rather than through a screen. But in-person mentorship means people are more bound by geographic proximity. It can also be more difficult to coordinate in-person conversations versus remotely.
Group vs. 1-1
We often think of mentorship as a one-on-one conversation between the mentor and mentee. But some mentorship can be done in a group setting. Usually, one mentor meets with several mentees to discuss topics that are relevant to the group’s members. This setting allows mentees to hear other mentees’ experiences and concerns. These groupings can help mentees form relationships and connections beyond the mentorship program, as well.
Formal vs. informal
Many mentorship programs are formal: mentors and mentees are matched. They then meet for a set number of sessions over a specified period of time. The mentorship program has pre-set goals and expectations between the mentor, mentee, and program itself.
Meanwhile, informal mentorship does not involve matching. Mentors and mentees can find each other on platforms, through networking events, work, and community groups. They can meet as little or as often as they like, and the content of their sessions can vary depending on the mentors’ and mentees’ preferences.
Keep in mind that there are mentorship programs that match mentors and mentees but don’t have a lot of structure. After the initial match, the mentor and mentee then decide how often and for how long they want to meet, about what, and in what kind of format.
Traditional vs. reverse vs. peer
A traditional mentor relationship is one where the mentor is more senior and can provide guidance to the more junior mentee. Traditional mentoring is beneficial when someone earlier in their career wants to learn lessons from someone more experienced in their field.
Meanwhile, reverse mentorship is often facilitated through companies to pair someone more junior with a more senior employee. The more junior person can mentor in new working styles, tools, or trends. Reverse mentorship helps more tenured employees stay up-to-date with current technology and modes of thinking.
Last but certainly not least, peer mentors are roughly equivalent in seniority and experience, but because no two career paths are exactly alike, they can guide one another in navigating a specific stage of their career. Peer mentors are often great within an organization to swap methods, frameworks, and skills.
The tech industry is becoming increasingly aware that mentorship from someone in an overrepresented group may not translate well to someone from an underrepresented group. In many cases, members of underrepresented groups prefer to receive mentorship from someone with a similar background—who will understand the specific challenges of working in tech as a person of color, woman, member of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.
No one should ever feel limited to receiving mentorship from any one group or background, but identity-based mentorship can provide a safe space for the mentee. The mentee can speak openly and be heard by someone who has similar reference points and empathy for the mentee’s experiences.
Types of mentors
Depending on where you are in your career, you may need a specific kind of mentor. Your concerns and questions will vary. Your challenges during a job search can differ from your concerns when you’re going through a promotion cycle. If you’re having trouble acclimating to a new team environment, you may seek a different kind of mentor than one who can provide feedback on a specific project.
The advocate acts like a champion for their mentee. They are their mentee’s biggest proponent. Typically, the advocate mentor is internal, acting from within the organization to ensure their mentee is supported, recognized, and advanced.
This can come in the form of
- recommendations for projects: “This person would be great to lead this project”
- support for promotion: “This person has demonstrated the skills for this promotion”
- championing the mentee’s work: “This person’s work on this project has these positive qualities”
Meet with an advocate when…
- You’re early in your career and need a champion within your company
- You’re under-supported as a woman, LGBTQ+, Black, or POC technologist in your workplace
The connector is like a broker who provides key referrals between their mentees and other members of the mentor’s network.
These introductions can take the form of job referrals by connecting a mentee with a hiring manager or someone senior within a company. Connectors can also introduce their mentee to others who have expertise or experience the mentor doesn’t have: “I don’t know much about Typescript, but I can connect you with my friend who is a Typescript expert.”
Especially for the under-networked, connectors can supercharge building a network by introducing mentees to many new folks.
Meet with a connector when…
- You’re looking for a job
- You need to find an expert in a specialized area
- You’re having trouble expanding or building your network
The subject matter expert
The subject matter expert (SME) is advanced in their field and has a wealth of professional knowledge to share. They are able to talk in-depth about what it’s like to do the day-to-day of their job as well as the available career paths in their field.
SMEs can provide guidance on specialized skills in product, engineering, and design. They can also provide advice on which skills to up-level or improve in order to advance in a given career path.
They’re also able to share feedback on works in progress, portfolios, side projects, and more. Because of their extensive knowledge of their subject, they have a keen eye for areas of improvement.
Meet with an SME when…
- You want more information about what it’s like to be a product manager, engineer, or designer
- You want to learn about career paths in the SME's field
- You want advice on a specific skill in your job
- You want feedback on a project or portfolio
The counselor acts as an advisor by listening to a challenge at work. They’ll ask questions, share their own experiences, provide suggestions, and help you create an action plan.
Counselors combine empathy and their own experiences to help you overcome specific work obstacles. You can think of them as an expert at debugging work-related problems.
Meet with a counselor when…
- You’re having trouble resolving interpersonal conflicts at work
- You’re burning out from the emotional toll of being from an underrepresented group at work
- You need help navigating a job search or a review/promotion cycle
The idea bouncer
The idea bouncer is the perfect mentor for a jam session. Whenever you need someone who is willing to poke holes in your ideas or provide fresh eyes on a project, the idea bouncer can challenge your assumptions and give you a new perspective.
Meet with an idea bouncer when…
- You want a critique on a project, resume, portfolio, etc.
- You’re having trouble getting feedback from coworkers or your manager
- You need someone to brainstorm with you
Finding the best type of mentor for you
The best type of mentor for you will change over time. The stage of your career and the challenges you’re facing will affect what kind of mentor and mentorship will help you the most. Some mentorship platforms and programs make it easy for you to meet with multiple mentors, making it more likely you’ll find someone who is a good fit for your career needs.
With hundreds of product, engineering, and design mentors from diverse backgrounds, Merit can help you debug your first year in tech. A Merit mentor can help you unblock a job search and navigate your first review cycle. Because it’s easy to sign up and find a mentor, you can quickly connect with someone who can identify with and provide advice about whatever challenges you’re encountering in your career.