This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Several years ago, the term “mentoring” saw a spike in popularity. Some of that was because within the realm of human resources and organizational behavior, there is always a phrase that becomes popular for a while only to be replaced by another that seems — when defined — to be a lot like one that was there before.
A larger part of it, however, was due to the reported success that the approach was showing in management. An April 2015 Harvard Business Review article reported that CEOs in mentoring programs felt like they made better decisions (69 percent of those surveyed) and their mentor helped them avoid major mistakes (84 percent).
As a result of this rise in prominence, mentoring programs began expanding to other areas, including IT certification. In reality, however, a limited type of mentoring has existed in this province for decades: at first, there were “evangelists” or “champions” who responded to posts on bulletin boards before they morphed into blogs and other forms of social media.
While these individuals support the community and do their best to help others, the “limited” mentoring label applies. These efforts rarely represent one-on-one help and thus fall short of the definition of true mentoring. To understand the full value that mentoring has to offer, it is important first to define and differentiate it, and then explore some of the possibilities.
Separating mentoring from other approaches
Mentoring may be a part of either a formal or informal structure. In a more formal structure, a business, organization, or other group entity sets up a program and invites mentors and mentees to be a part of it. Sometimes there are incentives for participation. In an informal structure, one individual seeks out another and asks that person to be their mentor and help them grow.
At first glance, mentoring seems similar to coaching or advising, but there are some key distinctions between them. Coaching tends to always be more formal and is usually task-based and of limited duration. With mentoring, the relationship between a mentor and mentee can go on for a long period of time, as long as the mentee is continuing to benefit from it. It bears pointing out, of course, that some formal programs enforce rotation among mentors and mentees at specific time periods.
Advising grows out of the academic setting (think tutors) and differs from mentoring in that it focuses more on the “sage on the stage” model. The person who has a stockpile of knowledge passes it along to the person who is lacking that knowledge.
Mentoring isn’t just evangelizing to the uninitiated, but requires active listening and finding ways to personalize responses while showing support. While an advisor gives a message — whether it is heard or not — a mentor is more focused on building rapport and demonstrating interest in the development of the mentee: encouraging them and helping them.
Most importantly, mentoring differs from coaching, advising, and other management movements in its focus on reciprocity. Not only does the mentee gain from the relationship that is established, but the mentor is often able to get a great deal from it as well.
It is possible, and not uncommon, to serve as both a mentor and a mentee at the same time — and gain from both roles. The same individual, for example, might be a mentor to someone studying for the CompTIA Security+ exam, while they themselves are working with a mentor while studying for the CompTIA CASP+ certification.
Within the specific domain of certification mentorship, a mentor can be invaluable in explaining how to interpret questions, how to approach the study of particular topics, how to get hands-on experience without bringing the company servers down, and so on.
While the mentor is providing assistance and encouragement to the mentee, they are also gaining from the experience by seeing how a different person looks at topics of study and approaches knowledge gaps. It’s often been said that you can never fully learn a topic as well as you can when you teach it to others.
Understanding mentorship roles
Since the goal of mentoring is improvement, or making the person being mentored progressively better than they were when they started, it is not always the smartest person who makes the best mentor. While the sage may make the best professor or the best coach, the best mentor is often the person a mentee can relate with (first and foremost) who understands area(s) where the mentee is weak (secondary).
Relationships are a crucial key to successful mentoring. It is difficult for a mentee to open up himself or herself to improving and expose their vulnerabilities to someone to they do not feel they can trust and relate to. The mentor will offer some direct instruction, but must also provide advice and encouragement along the way.
(A second Harvard Business Review article details six things every mentor should do. More information about both the mentoring relationship and methods of mentoring can be found in the resources section at the end of this article.)
The best mentors are always those who want to make the required commitment (and it can be a huge one), and often those who volunteer for the role rather than being recruited or incentivized. The mentor is an accountability partner, and this often works best when that person is not a direct supervisor. Mentees attempting to learn from someone who supervises them at work may hesitate to open up about their knowledge gaps.
A good mentor also does not embark on their job seeking praise or affirmation. While being a mentor can be good for the ego, the expense in terms of time and energy needs to be viewed as an investment in the other person’s growth and development, or else it is too easy to lose the desire to keep going.
On the other side of the coin, the best mentee is one who can identify goals they are reaching for, as well as obstacles that are currently keeping them from achieving those goals. It helps to be open to fresh perspectives, willing to recognize one’s deficiencies, and eager to learn from others.
Ideally, the mentorship extends beyond just test preparation or current shortcomings and into career guidance that will help the mentee continue to thrive in the long run. It is imperative that the fit between mentor and mentee be a comfortable one. The mentee should never be hesitant to seek another mentor if they do not feel at ease, or if they question the ability of a chosen mentor to provide the help they need.
That said, it is equally important to not judge too quickly whether a mentor may be helpful or not: Sometimes the best help comes from sources that are initially undervalued. (To put it another way: Don’t judge a book by its cover.)
Ensuring a successful mentorship
Once a mentor and mentee are paired up, regardless of how that came about, two important things have to be dealt with right away. The first is deciding how meetings will take place and the second is identifying the purpose of those meetings.
The meetings can be in any format — in person, over Zoom, or via e-mail, phone, and so forth — and may be held at any place: an office, the break room, a coffee shop. The frequency is likewise fluid: weekly, biweekly, monthly. What it important is that all of these details must be agreed upon by both parties.
Just as the meeting times and place must be agreed upon by both parties at the start, so too both parties must agree what the content of the meetings will be. What issues will be discussed? How will issues be addressed and resolved? How will progress be determined?
To put in perspective what to avoid, imagine a scenario in which Michael agrees to mentor Ray for the next three months as he prepares for the CISSP exam, which he plans to take in four months. For those three months, Michael and Ray meet every Friday morning at a coffee shop and swap stories about schools they attended, major family events, and so on.
While Michael is a great friend and ally, and would likely receive very high marks on any mentor evaluation, he isn’t contributing to Ray’s success. What’s more, this won’t become entirely evident until one month after the mentorship ends, and Ray miserably fails the certification exam.
To avoid this scenario, more immediate needs must be identified, ways of removing frictions acknowledged, and measurable goals outlined against which performance can be gauged along the way. A set of short-term goals should be established that lead toward one or more long-term goals, and all goals need specifics (dates, scores, and so on) tied to them.
As it relates to certification mentoring, short-term measurable outcomes can be performance on practice exams, the ability to perform tasks that appear on an objective list, or other means of demonstrating progress toward certification success. The long-term goal can be passing a single certification exam or the series of exams necessary to obtain a particular certification.
The goals need to be agreed upon at the beginning by both the mentor and mentee. A common tool used to create goals is the SMART acronym. That is to say that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely. A mixture of both professional and personal development goals can be created, but they need to all contribute to the long-term goal (or goals), whatever it happens to be.
At the end of the process, it should be clear to both parties whether (and how) the long-term goal was achieved. Did the mentee obtain the certification that he was seeking? Was the mentee successful in being promoted to the job role that she set out to chase down? The clearer the objectives are from the start, the easier it will be to gauge success.
This article merely scratches the surface of mentoring. Additional details and information will be provided in a future article. In the meantime, suggested resources to look at are the two HBR articles referenced earlier:
De Janasz, S., & Peiperl, M. (2015). CEOs need mentors too. Harvard Business Review.
Chopra, V., & Saint, S. (2017). Things every mentor should do. Harvard Business Review.
The website of Mentor Collective https://www.mentorcollective.org/ is also an excellent resource. While this organization is tailored more toward universities and the creation of formal programs, the information offered relative to mentoring is universal and well worth looking at.