Mentorship: What’s Old Is New Again

By Andrew Geant, CEO of Wyzant


70% of millennials say they do not have a workplace mentor1, but the majority want one2. As the co-founder and CEO of Wyzant, that struck me as a big problem to fix.

So we recently conducted a research project to investigate the circumstances, motivations and hesitations under which professionals are hiring tutors to advance their skillsets and careers. Through a series of in-depth interviews with a variety of professionals, we uncovered why there’s such a lack of mentorship in today’s workplace, as well as some ideas for promoting mentorship and getting the most out of it. And what better place to share those insights than with our friends at Thinkful, where 1-to-1 mentorship is the centerpiece of their business?

People are hesitant to seek help from peers and colleagues.

There are two primary reasons why professionals are hesitant to seek mentorship from managers or peers. First, they often feel badly for not already knowing the answer or having the skill. Second, they recognize that to truly master the discipline, they need consistent, long-term coaching, and they know that their peers don’t always have the ability to make this commitment.

The first of these issues — hesitation to ask for help — is completely addressable by building a culture of support and openness. At Wyzant, our first core value is “Always Be Learning.” From the very first interview, employees are indoctrinated to invest in developing new skills and expertise, and to leverage one another whenever possible.

With respect to the second issue — the need for long-term coaching — the reality is that learning something new does generally require a significant commitment. And it may not always be possible or the best use of resources for employees or peers to invest significant amounts of time training one another. That’s why at Wyzant we make outside resources available to our employees. Each employee has access to unlimited 1-to-1 tutoring with an expert in our network as long as the subject area is relevant to their job. Paid mentorship is a great option, and it often results in more structure and commitment, thus yielding better outcomes.

People don’t know where to turn to get “real world” help.

We heard this sentiment repeatedly in the interviews we conducted, particularly from people who were taking online courses or other programs that didn’t offer the supplemental resources necessary for truly individualized learning to occur. Asynchronous content can be quite effective for conveying subjects at an academic, theoretical level. But when people we spoke to tried to actually apply the subjects they were learning (such as Java, Python and Arabic) to hands-on projects at their jobs or in their studies, they got stuck and decided to find an expert to work with them on a 1-to-1 basis. Unfortunately, most of the students we spoke to didn’t know where to find this kind of help. Thankfully, they eventually found their way to Wyzant, but it’s clear that many programs are setting students up to fail by not providing them with the personalized support they need to be successful.

Mentorship is a two-way street.

The best long-term mentor/mentee relationships are mutually beneficial arrangements in which both parties bring something useful to the table. Steve Blank makes this point nicely in his blog post,“Mentors, Coaches and Teachers."

“Now I realize that what made these relationships a mentorship is this: I was giving as good as I was getting. While I was learning from them — and their years of experience and expertise — what I was giving back to them was equally important. I was bringing fresh insights to their data. It wasn’t that I was just more up to date on the current technology, markets or trends. I was able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives to what these very smart people already knew. In hindsight, mentorship is a synergistic relationship.”

As a quick aside, I personally think that the lines of demarcation among mentors, coaches, teachers and tutors are much fuzzier than Steve describes in this article. In our experience, it’s quite common for a relationships between tutors and students to include aspects of teaching, coaching and mentoring all wrapped into one.

Approaching mentorship as a two-way street not only serves to increase the overall value and sustainability of the relationship, it also facilitates better learning. We believe wholeheartedly in the old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. One way we promote teaching is through our weekly “Lunch and Learns,” where individual contributors across the organization share their knowledge of a variety of technologies and disciplines. Some recent examples include an overview of usability principles and tips for using Google Analytics.

Networks can’t be confined to the office walls.

It is relatively easy to build strong professional relationships with your peers and colleagues within your own company or program. But for most people, it feels much harder to build these types of relationships with people outside of the company. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be.

As a rule, I believe people love to help other people. It’s gratifying, and it makes the world a better place. With Linkedin, it couldn’t be easier to identify the right people who can help you learn and develop as a professional. Not everyone will respond to you, but if you’re genuine and thoughtful, you’ll be surprised how many people will make the time. Additionally, realize that as new talent comes into the company, you are not only hiring them, you are also gaining access to their networks. Of course not all of the people you connect with will end up becoming long-term mentors, but if you play the odds and have enough of the right conversations, over time, you’ll find yourself building highly productive, rewarding and long-term professional relationships.

In today’s knowledge economy and with the pace of technological change, continuous growth and professional development are essential in order to stay relevant and be successful. And there are more ways to learn now than ever before. In addition to degree granting programs, MOOCs, bootcamps and video content platforms have all emerged as viable options. Just keep in mind that most of these options do not come with any sort of 1-to-1 resources. (Thinkful is a notable exception.) And when you do find yourself struggling to apply a new skill, remember that unlike Trix, tutoring is not just for kids.