A Case Against Mentorship

Mentorship. Every semester for eight years I have spoken in business class after class at St. Kate’s giving my tips to succeed in the business world. #1 was always “find a mentor.” That advice is changing starting today.

6 months ago, some of my own mentors remained the last & largest roadblock to overcome in making the decision to quit my job…until my counselor suggested an alternative universe I had never considered–“Shannon, what if you don’t need mentors anymore?”

Whoa. EVERYONE needs a mentor….right? But can mentorship ever end up turning harmful? I’m currently reading a manuscript written by Angela Noel, a fabulously talented author & new friend of mine. In the manuscript there is a mentee character named Melissa who—

…didn’t want to appear confused, and she didn’t want to waste Alexandra’s time. Melissa sensed Alexandra was irritated with her. It pained her to think she had already asked a dumb question.

Does Melissa need a mentor if her mentor creates those kinds of feelings within her? Probably not. The book goes on describing the mentorship as it progresses—

A few times, Melissa had been rewarded with a smile or a nod that felt as if her mentor was pleased with her protégé. Melissa craved these moments. When Alexandra recognized her efforts, she would go to bed at night with a deep feeling of satisfaction for the day and an equal sense of longing to recreate that feeling of contentment through another success. Pleasing Alexandra felt like the key to unlocking a greater truth about herself.

Flashing red alarms were going off inside me as I read this. I remember feeling just like Melissa.

I wanted so strongly to please them that I eventually lost sight of my own values, dreams and ambitions.

I became a mere prop to some mentors like a fur boa stroking their bloated egos as I allowed my choices to mirror theirs.

I lived to please them. I trusted their voice over my own. I became a pawn in their larger career game. By the time I recognized it I was a mere shell of the person I used to be; a robot carbon copy of them void of the values I came into the organization with and held so dear.

Some of these mentors behaved more like reality stars–false idols requiring continued worship and sacrifices at their altars in order to keep gifting me with their presence & wisdom. That proved deadly to my own sense of self. It literally died. And I’ve had to spend the last 6 months searching for it again.

That sounds terrible, right? So what’s a girl to do? It’s only natural to want advice & wisdom from time to time. But never worth it when it costs you your own sense of self.

Can I propose a humble alternative?

Instead of looking for mentors consider seeking out coaches in your life.

How can you tell the difference between a coach and a mentor? For me it looks like this–

Mentors (that act like reality stars):

  • Share a lot of personal stories usually unrelated to anything you asked to talk about in your time together.
  • Shove their career and life path on you assuming you want to and should copy them.
  • Rarely ask questions and instead jump straight to their answers and advice.
  • Use aggressive language when giving advice saying things like
    • You should…
    • I would never….
  • Infrequently support your own successes but welcome your constant praise of theirs.
  • Determine the strength of your relationship based on if you are following their advice. If you do, the relationship grows stronger. If you do not, it grows weaker.
  • Weaken their ties to you if you achieve faster and/or greater success than they did.
  • Use parables or obscure metaphors most often related to their own hobbies (sports, music, literature, history) when giving advice.
  • Approach conversations as your superior regardless of the actual levels between you; they always have more to offer in finding a solution to your situation than you do.


  • Focus on YOUR best interest—what are your values? What is your vision for your career & life?
  • Help you uncover your own path vs. encouraging you to follow theirs.
  • Lead with more questions than answers.
  • May never actually share their opinion—it’s irrelevant. Instead they focus on coaching you toward uncovering your own best outcome.
  • Never make you feel small, stupid, or like you’re wasting their time.
  • Maintain neutrality in the relationship empowering you to make your own choices. They’ll still be there regardless of the choice you make.
  • Detach from their desired outcome in favor of helping you find yours.
  • Cheer your successes on and are happy when you are given opportunities they did not have; they want the company and world to advance!
  • Use plain, simple language that anyone can understand
  • Approach conversations as equals regardless of the actual levels between you. They may even approach you as having less to offer than you in finding a solution to your situation because they believe YOU know YOU best.

I used to have mentees. Now I simply call them friends. I’m not always a perfect coach to these friends or my clients. Sometimes I think I someone about to make the same mistakes I did and I want so badly to prevent them from experiencing that disappointment. But I remind myself that their path is not mine. What was a mistake for me may be the best thing that ever happened to them!

I also used to have mentors. But some of them behaved more like reality stars–highly skilled at creating followers and super fans….and not much else.  Now I seek to find the true coaches amongst that past group of mentors. These coaches have a history of guiding and supporting me (and others) to achieve our own definition of success…not adopt theirs.

Question of the Post: Who do you reach out to for guidance as you navigate your career & life? How do you walk away feeling after you talk with them? Are they behaving like a mentor or a coach? Which one generally creates better outcomes for you?

Finally, if you considered me to be your mentee: I’ve fired you and invite you to reapply to the posting of friend & coach. And I apologize for the times where I acted more like a crazed super fan than a normal, equal human being.

And if you considered me to be your mentor: I quit and would like to reapply to the posting of friend & coach. And I apologize for the times when I acted more like a needy reality star craving your praise more than focusing on what YOU needed.

7 thoughts on “A Case Against Mentorship”

  1. Can my answer be neither? I claim my answer to be that I learn best from preceptorships! This model is used alot in the medical world in that it allows for the best of both worlds! Now just like in coaching and mentoring you will have great preceptors and bad preceptors and everything in between, but this model I feel allows me to draw from the full spectrum of experience! When I started as a nurse I was assigned a preceptor, a more experienced nurse who I was to learn from and follow. I acted as a shadow to this nurse for about two weeks and then we flipped roles and she acted as my ghost for two weeks. During that two weeks she would instruct me through any problems I would encounter and encourage me in my successes! The preceptor would also share stories as a way of learning, as some techniques or situations are rare, and it is in these stories that, as a young nurse, I would remember how to react! The last month I was on my own with my preceptor acting as my safety net, and only stepping in if I was making a big mistake or if I came to them.
    As I transitioned to the Operating Room I had an even longer preceptorship and my preceptor Jackie became my role model of how to be a great OR nurse! It wasn’t because she forced her way or ways on me, but she always would make me think and one of her favorite questions was ” why did you opt for that route?” ” Take me through your process” I loved that she wanted to see what had led me to my choices! If needed she would give counsel or redirection, but she always did it in a way that praised the correct choices and usually visually showing me how my wrong choices could be made better! To this day I will go to her for advice, because I know she listen first, then advise! In the world of nursing it is always a good idea to find a nurse or nurses you trust in order to have a port in the crazy seas we work in. These people become your friends, counselors role models, and your best teachers. I, to this day, give this advice to any new nurse as I have gained so much knowledge from the my preceptors!

    It may not have answered the question directly, but that is how I learn best!

    1. It SO. TOTALLY. CAN! Sooo cool to hear about how the nursing profession approaches these types of relationships differently. I love the concept of a preceptor! And Jackie sounds like one fabulous coach with her line of questioning!!

  2. My immediate thoughts:
    – I don’t think “mentorship” has to be a bad thing. Bad mentors are a bad thing. Good mentors (in my opinion) look an awful lot like coaches and friends.
    – I’ve only had a small handful of mentors/coaches in my career, and I’m happy to say that I would call all of them friends now. Sure, most of them started as managers or leaders, but through our time together, the relationship grew into that of a friendship. And who better to be a trusted advisor than a friend who you know truly has your bestinterest at heart.
    – I do have some individuals that I talk with on a fairly regular basis about their goals, careers, life, etc., and it’s not a formal thing. We’re just two people talking. I may share some of my experience to give them insight, but ultimately the focus is on who they are and what they want to do/be/experience. I’m not sure if I’m a coach, a mentor, or a friend, but I’m okay with that ambiguity.

    1. Ha! Hello, Dear Husband. 😉 I agree–mentor doesn’t have to be a four letter word. For me, GOOD mentors are synonymous with being a coach and friend as you said. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn though in the “to know her” process. I used to define a good mentor differently than I do today.

  3. Hi Shannon! I’m delighted you picked up on the less-than-healthy relationship between fictional Alexandra and her protege Melissa. And thank you for the kind shout out! Nothing makes an author happier than to know a reader found value in the pages.
    I love that you called out how the “mentorships” you had have evolved into friendships, where give and take and mutual learning and respect are paramount. Anytime I’ve had a relationship founded on an unequal basis, I find myself squirming with discomfort. Either I’m the one “receiving” the gift of another’s wisdom, or I’m uncomfortable on the ego-pedestal I’m on as I bestow my wisdom upon someone else (whether they want me to or not). I tend to think it’s not so much the name we give these relationships as the way we enter into them. I like the phrase “designing a relationship” (something I learned from the fabulous Ann Boyum and Radical Leadership). When two people come together with mutual goals for what each wants and wants to contribute–even if it’s just “Hey, I like roller coasters, and you like roller coasters- let’s ride roller coasters!” no matter what the name might be, friends, mentors, coaches, etc, the outcome feels more authentic and frankly more FUN!
    I love your post- it gave me much to think about and reflect on. Your fire and passion always inspire.

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