The Inherent Flaw in the Mentor-Mentee Concept

I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, when I found out I was accepted into a prestigious editorial intern program for a New York City magazine. As a magazine major about to head into her senior year, this was a big day.

The internship was going to put me one step closer to landing my dream job; give me a first-hand glimpse into the hustle and bustle of the magazine industry; and allow me to rub elbows with editorial bigshots. At the very least, I would be able to leave the summer with one mentor. Someone who would undoubtedly provide me with the salient guidance needed to navigate the big, bad corporate world. Someone who—if I demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt why I was worth mentoring—would open doors for me.

So I spent that summer determined to find a mentor. And I was relentless in my quest.

I seized every moment to stand out. I lent my opinion in editorial meetings while other interns sat quiet; I concocted any excuse to solicit input from my supervisor to ensure I had enough “face time” to be memorable; and I painstakingly crafted close to a dozen handwritten thank-you notes that final day to cement the bonds. Following that summer, I knew the hard work had really only just begun, though. I now had to figure out how to stay in contact with my supervisor and evidence why I was still mentor-worthy, post internship.

When I look back more than a decade later, though I am proud of myself for the conviction I exhibited in laying the groundwork to be worthy of mentorship, I also feel a bit saddened that I felt compelled to “play the game.” Some of it was because of the pressure I placed on myself, but a lot of had to do with the paradigm that exists around the mentor-mentee relationship.

If you look at traditional definitions, the mentor is often defined as the more experienced, wise senior professional whose time is viewed as worthy and valuable; whereas the mentee is typically more greenfield. This immediately casts an old-young dichotomy. What’s more, because of the definition, much of the onus of finding and securing the relationship is placed on the mentee. Numerous publications detail how to secure a mentor, giving advice to mentees including:

  • Find someone from whom you wish to learn
  • Strike up the relationship in a very delicate and intentional manner
  • Ensure that each interaction is worthwhile for the mentor as his or her time is limited

In other words, the traditional mentor-mentee relationship instantly places the mentee in a subservient role, essentially having to prove him or herself to capture the attention of the wiser, more experienced, more professional individual.

Now granted, in many instances the responsibility should be on the mentee, particularly when that individual is just embarking on his or her career and feels less confident in his or her ability to give back. But as we move forward in our career and pursuits, we need to recognize that no matter our age, title or experience level, we have just as much to give.

A few months ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Kathleen Malin, the Rhode Island Foundation’s Vice President of Technology and Operations Management. She has undoubtedly become not only a key mentor in my life, but a dear friend as well. But something she said last fall changed my thinking. She told me that I am mentoring her just as much as she is mentoring me. That stuck with me.

Like good leadership, mentorship should move up, down, diagonal and sideways. It shouldn’t be about age and hierarchy but rather about real connections that are founded on reciprocity. I’d actually contend we should lose the nomenclature of mentor-mentee altogether. The very concept reinforces hierarchy and suggests that you’re only able to be a mentor when you have a resume to back you up. The traditional definition supports the notion that leadership can only be characterized by title, years of experience and hierarchy.

So let’s flip the paradigm.

Instead of seeking mentors, search for partners, companions and friends. Sometimes your partner will be older, other times younger. Sometimes your partner will have had decades of experience working; other times just starting out. Recognize that no matter where you are at in your journey, you have just as much to give as the person sitting across from you… what you give will just be different.

As I look ahead to the next 10 years ago, I am no longer seeking mentors. Nor am I seeking to be someone’s mentor. Rather, I am looking to forge real connections, founded on authenticity, compassion and giving—celebrating the fact that I have real advice to dispense, perspective to lend and the words to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Carrie Majewski is committed to affecting change. As Founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus, Carrie is fueled by a desire to create safe space for female luminaries to convene to redefine the notion of leadership. She has forged a career around strategic writing and storytelling, having led a digital marketing agency for almost three years and today working as VP of Marketing for Trilix. Carrie is a 2017 Rhode Island “40 Under 40” honoree and a 2016 Rhode Island Tech10 Winner. In her spare time you'll find her trying out a local hip-hop class, exploring parks with her rescue dog Tori, and sipping coffee with other powerhouse women.