Face-off: Should Mentorship Relationships be Formal… or Informal?

Face off


Editor’s Note: Face-off is a weekly series on YouTern, where we look at the same career question from two generational perspectives… and present two very different answers. Please let us know if this new take on career advice is helpful to you… along with which perspective make the most sense to you!

In this installment of The Answer Zone, Mark Babbitt and Amy Tobin take on the question of mentorship. Specifically, whether or not mentor relationships should be formalized… or remain informal, almost organic.

See both sides of this discussion, right now… 


Amy TobinAmy Tobin (Gen X): My work with Millennials – and seeing what they need and want out of work life – crystallized for me that they desperately need and want mentorship from older, more experienced peers.

Through my conversations with them and through my own experience I have become convinced that establishing a formal mentoring relationship cuts through a lot of the “warm up” needed for that relationship to be concrete enough for the mentee to ask for help.

I have regularly encouraged Millennials to ask the person they admire and respect to create a formal mentoring relationship; removes the need for small talk and creates an immediate “safe zone” for the less experienced to ask difficult questions. The mentor benefits because they won’t get trapped answering questions from a person they have no clear relationship with, and they can establish boundaries and guidelines from the start.  

When I serve as the mentor, this more formal relationship allows me to state, out loud: “I can be your mentor – not your coach or therapist.”

As a Mentee, reaching out and asking for a formal relationship with a colleague I admire was calculated; a real commitment. This person was incredibly knowledgeable about my specific business and I wanted to learn from him without being a cloying social media stalker. Requesting a formal mentorship gave me access to that knowledge and regular, established conversations to guide me. He enjoys the mentoring and carves space out of his work week to help out.

We’re all unique individual snowflakes, so of course some of us will require a more loosey-goosey relationship. I, however, believe that most of us gain much more out of a formal, recognized mentor relationship.


Mark Babbitt AuthorMark Babbitt (Boomer): Despite mentoring hundreds of young careerists, leaders, speakers and authors… I have never once been asked, “Will you be my mentor?” Despite having dozens of mentors myself, I have never asked, “Will you be my mentor?”

Personal relationships that transform into mutually-beneficial mentor-mentee relationships, for me, have always in a more organic way. If I see value – and most important: potential and passion – in a person, I want to help. Maybe for a lifetime… or maybe in a 30-minute conversation that is remembered for a lifetime.

The key for me – as either a mentee or a mentor – is impact:

  • What did I learn?
  • What filters or barriers were removed?
  • How did I shorten a learning curve – even if it meant helping that person fail faster?
  • How I am, or the mentee, seeing a challenge in a different (and perhaps more productive) way?
  • How did I help that person come a little closer to achieving a milestone or goal?

To me, those are far more important questions than: “Will you be my mentor?” And let’s be honest: We’re all busy. Despite wanting to help everyone with potential, we are all over-committed.

So the will-you-be-my-mentor question comes across like a lifetime commitment; an oath – maybe even a marriage proposal.

I don’t need a formal designation as a mentor. I don’t care if we talk once a week, or once a year: when I can help, pick up the phone. Shoot me an email. Re-connect on LinkedIn. When I come into town, buy me a coffee, or let me buy you a beer.

Treat like a been-there-done-that friend with consistently good advice. Because to me, that is what mentorship really is: a friendship that helps us realize our potential.

We’d love to hear your opinion on formal mentorships in the comment section.




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