mentorships

Mentorships
in the Millennium: A Niche Market

How has mentorship changed?

Written by Brian Celio

Before the advent of the Internet, people had limited resources for finding a mentor. Most mentees opted for the comfort of family and friends. Some were put on paths where mentoring comes with the territory, such as sports and college programs. Others had the fortune of serendipity and embraced the kindness of strangers. In most of these instances, proximity was necessary, but formalities were not. The constructs of the mentorship did not always have clearly defined methods and goals. It was simply people helping people.

Now that technology has globalized our relationships and given us a wealth of information, mentoring has developed into a bona fide industry with its own language. As social media expanded at the turn of the century, e-mentoring emerged. The digital marketplace began to populate a new world where professional relationships have no geographical boundaries or limitations on what topics to explore. It even strengthened existing sub-industries such as life-coaching and conferencing. Above all, it has made mentorships available to anyone at any time.

"As social media expanded at the turn of the century, e-mentoring emerged."

Even the places where formal mentoring was found before the Internet have embraced the future. From churches to career centers, traditional nonprofit organizations have countless websites springing up that offer mentoring services. The Center for Nonprofit Success has developed an online system that can land you a mentor to help with your career path in just a few quick steps. On their mentor page, they have a scrollbar menu with 11 categories geared toward specific skill sets, ranging from Executive Transitions to Strategic Alliances. Once you specify your needs, they work to put you in touch with a mentor. Since it is a nationwide system, you could end up with a mentor living nearby, allowing the possibility of traditional face-to-face mentoring. If not, they offer telephone and email services. Call it the luxury of convenience.

Mentoring Has Gone Online

Now whether the convenience of the Internet has eroded the intimacy in mentorships is debatable. 50 years ago you might have had a mentor who lived down the block, knew your family and stuck around until the end—all free of charge. Qualifications, however, were not guaranteed. Personal and professional lines were often blurred, which can inadvertently lead to a longer route to a goal. Furthermore, niche mentoring—the idea of exploring very specific and sometimes unusual areas of expertise—was scarce. Nowadays you might not find yourself strolling through a park with your mentor, but knowing you can easily find someone to guide you on any subject just by using a search engine is nothing short of amazing.

According to former World Champion of Public Speaking Ryan Avery, there are five types of essential mentors: Life Mentor, Money Mentor, Family Mentor, Business Mentor and Expert Mentor. Despite overlooking the importance of an Education Mentor, his general philosophy hits upon the evolution of mentorships: it is now built into the infrastructure of our society, and every road is paved by mentors. What are these roads looking like? They’re both diverse and digital.

Some Things Remain the Same

For the most part, there have been two main blueprints for mentorships: pre-structured and co-designed. In a pre-structured mentorship, the mentee buys into an existing program, usually based on its proven track record. The program is built upon technical underpinnings that stem from cumulative years of instructional design, like the meticulous approaches put forth in “Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring” (available for free at www.mentoring.org).

An example of how this looks in today’s reality is the online company Management Mentors, which offers mentoring programs for workplaces where a rigid top-down structure makes sense. In a co-designed mentorship, the mentor and mentee build a program tailored to the individual. While pre-structured mentorships work most effectively in situations where groups share broad goals, co-designed mentorships retain the ability to nurture personal relationships between mentor and mentee. Even if it is confined to screen-to-screen conversations, all intimacy is not lost. Sometimes distance fosters comfort. In turn, the space to breathe and reflect creates a growing bond.

For those who are naturally shy and reserved, online mentoring could be the answer to seeking guidance when they would otherwise forgo the opportunity. This of course ties back into the idea that e-mentoring is convenient, not just from a quick and accessible standpoint, but also in that it can cater to different personalities.

An Emerging Trend in Mentoring

Embracing both notions is a new blueprint called micro-mentoring. This approach has evolved tremendously over the past few years with the popularity of social media. No longer do you need to commit fully to one mentor program or even one mentor. Many are seeking out advice piecemeal and through various channels at the same time.

For example, if you are looking for mentoring on how to deal with pursuing a graduate degree while having a family and working, you could employ YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook at the same time. YouTube might have videos of ordinary people discussing their recent undertaking. Twitter might have well-known mentors doling out relevant tidbits. Facebook might have support groups for people currently going through the same situation. All of them offer direct access not only to the knowledge, but also to those who have it. These expanding avenues might not result in an official mentor, but the technology does provide you with auxiliary help. The key advantage here is that most of it is free and easy to find.

With mentorships defying boundaries, personalities, and demographics thanks to the Internet, it has allowed mentoring to go niche. This is the beautiful result that occurs when something (in this case, an educational practice) has been around long enough to retain the strength of its core while spreading its wings. That is where mentorships are today: flying around in many different forms with the same old desire to teach and learn.

Think of it like this: Today a mentee might be meeting their mentor in person for an hour or two. Tomorrow the same mentee will seek further advice online minute-by-minute, site-by-site. The day after, the mentee will watch their mentor do a web broadcast to whoever wants to tune in. The fact is that mentors and mentees are not struggling over whether to take the traditional approach or the e-approach. They are finding ways to incorporate both, while the benefits continue to increase.