Studies show that people who have had mentors, who have had someone to provide “sponsorship, exposure, visibility, coaching, protection, and challenging assignments – activities which directly relate to the protégé’s career” do indeed experience more career advancement than people who have not had mentors . In a study of 1241 American executives, 67% of all respondents said they had a mentor . Which just goes to show – it’s who you know. That’s how, why, they are executives.
Given that it’s a 1979 statistic, presumably the respondents are referring to an informal mentorship, which arises spontaneously, as opposed to a formal mentorship, which is arranged by the organization as part of a mentoring program. The problem in both cases, however, is that most people who are in a position to mentor, a position of power and prestige, a well-connected position, are men. Still. So sexism keeps women from becoming protégés – because even if the guy’s wife is fine with it, everyone will wonder whether she’s sleeping her way to the top and that’ll handicap her, essentially cancelling any advantage of the mentorship. Furthermore, women who could be mentors avoid mentoring other women because they fear being labelled feminist troublemakers. Why don’t men fear mentoring other men for fear they’ll be labelled – what, part of the old boys’ network?
All that aside, it seems to me that mentoring is unfair: it makes ‘it’s who you know not what you know’ true. Merit becomes not the sole criterion for advancement.
Though perhaps mentoring counters chance. Chance is unfair too. With mentoring, those who do get doors opened for them are those who deserve it. But to say ‘All A are B’ doesn’t mean ‘All B are A’: to say ‘All those who are mentored have merit’ doesn’t mean ‘All those with merit become mentored’. And, of course, I’m not sure mentors choose their protégés according to merit.
So why do mentors choose who they choose? Why do mentors mentor at all? I wonder if it isn’t just some primitive lineage impulse in action. You know… men need a son, someone to carry on the family name. And since it’s more and more unlikely that men have actual sons in a position to be their protégés … Do mentors tend to choose sons of friends when available? Do they tend to choose people who are twenty to thirty years younger, in the ‘son’ age bracket? What about women who mentor? (More likely, their motive is social justice, not personal legacy.)
I’m not saying people shouldn’t seek, or give, advice and guidance. That’s not what mentoring is all about. A mentor does more than that: a mentor introduces you to influential people in the organization, facilitates your entry to meetings and activities usually attended by high-level people, publicly praises your accomplishments and abilities, recommends you for promotion, and so on. But see here’s the thing. Introductions should be unnecessary. Meetings attended by high level personnel shouldn’t be open to others. Everyone’s accomplishments and abilities should be praised publicly. Only your immediate supervisor or some named designate should be able to recommend you for a promotion. And so on.
In any case, the need for mentors means the organization isn’t structured to advance based on merit. So shouldn’t mentors’ efforts instead be directed to making sure that it is? To making sure that mentors aren’t needed? You shouldn’t need a mentor to open doors because the doors shouldn’t be locked. You shouldn’t need a mentor to give you inside information because there shouldn’t be any inside information: an organization’s policies and procedures should be written out for all to read, perhaps even presented at a new employee training session (and there should be no unwritten policies, no under-the-table procedures); any preferences for application materials, be it for a job, a promotion, or a grant, should be stated on the application form itself, or perhaps explained in a separate ‘Tips for Applicants’ sheet; and knowledge of any available job, promotion, or grant should be freely accessible to all. Influential people should use their influence only in formal channels; their authority should only be that vested in them by the terms of their job description.
Men are so proud of not mixing pleasure and business, of separating the personal from the public. Bullshit. Aren’t a lot of critical connections, let alone decisions, made on the golf course? At the bar? Between conference sessions? It seems that by ‘personal’ and ‘pleasure’ they just mean women – wives, daughters, sexual liaisons. They leave the women in their lives out of consideration. But their relationships with their buddies and their sons – these are very much brought into the workplace.
 “Formal and Informal Mentorships: A Comparison on Mentoring Functions and Contrast with Non-mentored Counterparts,” Georgia T. Chao and Pat M. Walz Personnel Psychology 45.3 (1992)
 “Much Ado about Mentors,” B. Roche. Harvard Business Review 5.7 (1979)