Allison McWilliams, director of mentoring and alumni personal and career development in the Office of Personal and Career Development, writes occasional articles for Inside WFU. This is her second for the spring semester. In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff drawn from her professional experience with students.
Which is better, formal or informal mentoring programs? This is a commonly-asked question with no clear-cut answer. Informal mentoring relationships provide the benefit of connection with someone with whom one has a previously-established relationship, whereas formal mentoring relationships often pair two people as part of a program based on common interests or goals, but lack that initial shared trust.
Informal mentoring relationships can go on forever, with no clear-cut beginning or end point, goals, or objectives. They are, by their nature, “informal,” loose and a bit more fluid. Formal mentoring relationships are highly structured, with clear articulation of program and relationship goals, expectations, and outcomes. Many people say that they prefer informal mentoring relationships, because it just “feels” better, more natural and organic.
That being said, it’s important to remember that all mentoring relationships, whether formal or informal, are power relationships, and there is much greater opportunity within informal relationships, lacking the structure and oversight of their formal partners, to do harm. Of course, no relationship has a guarantee of success. But there are several key best practices that should be employed in any mentoring relationship, whether formal or informal, to provide the optimal opportunities for success and to minimize the power dynamics:
There is no magic bullet to a successful mentoring relationship. The best mentoring partners are ones who are invested in each other and the relationship, and willing to put in the time and effort to make it work. What strategies can you employ to make sure that your relationship is set up for success?