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What is a Mentor, and Why You Need One5 min read

What is a Mentor

A mentor is one of the most important resources you can have in your career.

I certainly cannot imagine how different my experience at my current company would be without a mentor. With 40,000 employees, it’s easy to get lost and can be difficult to learn the ropes.

Having spent the first 10 years of my professional life outside the corporate setting, finding good mentors was something I had to do. I have, and it’s made a big difference.

If you don’t have one, you’re hurting yourself. Many of your peers do, and now they’re getting ahead.

Mentorship exists, and is important, in all areas of society, but mentorship in the workplace is absolutely necessary for career development, advancement, and getting the most out of your professional experience.

Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” — Denzel Washington

The History of Mentorship

While the practice of mentorship goes back to the earliest times of civilization, the word mentor comes from the ancient Greek poem, The Odyssey.

Odysseus, King of Ithaca, went off to fight in the Trojan War. He entrusted the care of his household and son (Telemachus) to a man named Mentor. Mentor was to be the teacher and overseer of Telemachus.

After the war, Odysseus wandered for ten years in his attempt to return home. Telemachus, then grown, left in search of his father.

The goddess Athena took on the appearance of Mentor in order to guide young Telemachus in his time of difficulty.

What is a Mentor?

By definition, a mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser. Used as a verb, it means to advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).

But a mentor is so much more, and if you don’t have one you’re already behind.

From a career and workplace perspective, a mentor has three key functions: to teach, connect, and support.


A typical mentorship is when someone more experienced becomes a mentor for someone less experienced.

Don’t over-complicate this. A new employee, or one earlier in their career, needs to learn the ropes. From company culture to office politics, it’s so much easier to learn these things with a mentor.

It’s true, there’s no substitute for experience, and you’ll learn many lessons by trial and error. But why wait? A mentor can help you fast forward this learning process by teaching, guiding, and preparing.

I encounter situations all the time where being able to run my response by my mentor is crucial. He doesn’t tell me what to do, or how to think. It’s the fact that he makes me think. And usually I leave the conversation saying, “Wow, I didn’t think about it like that.”

It doesn’t always change my opinion, but it almost always leaves me looking at the bigger picture.


The second function of a mentor is to connect. Whether you’re looking to further your career by changing roles or just needing to work through a difficult situation, a mentor is going to be able to point you in the right direction.

One of the most tricky aspects of the corporate world is just knowing who to go to. Finding the right person the first time is key. It saves you time, and it saves you headache.

I’ll cover this in more detail in my next post, How to get the most out of your mentor (click here to get my free updates), but the connect part goes both ways.

While your mentor may be more experienced and knowledgeable in your field, they are not a mind reader. It’s your responsibility to ask when you need to be connected.

During my first job change at my current company, I found myself choosing between two roles. I needed advice, but other than my mentor I did not know who to talk to. He gave me a couple of names, and I was able to gain perspective I otherwise wouldn’t have had.


The third function of a mentor is to support the ongoing development of their mentee. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship.

Support is a broad term, and encompasses every aspect of the mentee’s development including career development, character development, and social development.

Career development is the process of managing your work experience within or between organizations. Having a mentor to help guide this process can make the journey easier and more efficient.

Character development is the type of person, employee, or leader you become. It’s not the mentor’s job to define your character, but really to help you find your character. Experience and a good mentor play an integral part of this process.

Social development is the way you interact with other stakeholders. It could be employees, managers, customers, or coworkers. Navigating the social web of the workplace can be tricky. And having a good mentor can quickly put you ahead of your peers.

While it may not take a mentor to get hired and be successful, having one will make the process easier, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling. A mentor will help get you up to speed more quickly in your new role, help you learn what’s important, connect you with the right people, and then take an active role in supporting your career development moving forward.

Now that you know you need one, the next step is finding the right mentor. Check out the next post in this series, How to Find the Right Mentor, when it’s published. Get my weekly newsletter, and I’ll let you know as soon as it’s ready!

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Kevin August 30, 2016, 6:19 pm

    This is a very good point and is something I myself have been looking for to help see what is the best way to grow and advance my career.

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