Five Misconceptions About Mentoring

By Bobb Biehl
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Maybe you've heard about mentoring but don't really know what it is. Let's clear up five of the most common misconceptions.

Misconception number one: Mentors are at least 83 years old.

One of the most common misconceptions about mentoring involves age. Many people assume that in order to be wise enough and mature enough to be a mentor, you have to be at least 83 years old. They assume the only appropriate protégés are 16-year-olds receiving their tutelage on a stuffed leather bench at a grand piano. This is simply not the case.

I’d advise you to ignore age when selecting a mentor. Just look for a person whom you respect and like a lot, and from whom you want to learn.

Younger protégés look at mentors as “older,” but mentors look at protégés over 30 simply as “adult.” As a protégé, you may be constantly aware of the age difference. If you are over 30, your mentor probably sees you as a young adult friend. The relationship is adult to adult, not adult to child.

Misconception number two: Mentors must be perfect!

This misconception causes qualified people to hesitate about becoming mentors. The fact is, protégés don’t expect a mentor to be perfect.

I once spoke at a conference where I asked how many of the attendees expected their mentors to be perfect. Not one hand went up. Then I asked, “How many of you have procrastinated about becoming a mentor because you assumed that you had to be perfect as a mentor?” Probably 95 percent of the hands in the room went up. The bottom line is, mentors are not perfect, and they don’t need to be.

Misconception number three: Mentors have all the answers.

This misconception is obviously related to the one before it. The same logic applies. Mentors are human. They do not have all the answers. They never will have all the answers. Their role is sometimes to be the answer, sometimes to have the answer, but most of the time to know where to find the answer.

Fundamentally, a mentor connects a protégé to resources: his personal network, appropriate seminars, libraries, helpful videos, audio tapes and books, and even support groups. The mentor is never required to have all the answers or all the resources. He or she is simply a connector to many resources that the protégé needs during the growth process.

As a mentor, your attitude should be, “I’m here to help you, and I’ll do what I can.”

Misconception number four: The mentoring process involves a curriculum the mentor needs to teach a protégé.

Believe me, no such curriculum exists. The mentoring process is unique to each protégé. Learning is based on the protégé’s agenda, priorities, questions, and needs — not on the mentor’s preset program.

Within a trust relationship, protégés are able to ask questions they would never feel comfortable asking most people. They learn best when their need to know is greatest. Therefore, the single most teachable moment of any protégé’s life is the few seconds immediately following a sincere question. No curriculum, checklist or theory could replace a mentor’s life experience and compassion in such a teachable moment.

Misconception number five: A mentor’s focus is holding a protégé accountable.

My observation is that many people focus on accountability for one of two reasons: They enjoy holding other people accountable but do not particularly want to be held accountable, or they lack self-control and try to put that responsibility in someone else’s hands. Obviously, both of these motivations are unhealthy and would be detrimental to a mentoring relationship. Accountability should not be the focus of the mentoring relationship. The focus should be supporting, strengthening, and encouraging.

Of course, in the natural process of helping the protégés grow to maturity, you will use an element of accountability. For instance, you can hold your protégé accountable for following through on something if a little accountability support helps to form a new habit, reach a new goal, or resist some temptation. But do not feel that, as a mentor, you are supposed to hold your protégés accountable every step of the way. Their accountability needs to be developed in terms of responsibility to god, government and other legitimate authorities, not to you.

From Mentoring: How to Find a Mentor and How to Beome One, published by Aylen Publishing. Copyright © 2005, Bobb Biehl. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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