Allison McWilliams: Formal vs. informal mentoring

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.

20111010mcwilliams4344Which 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:

  • Set clear expectations. Take the time to talk through what both partners expect from the relationship. How often will you meet? How will you communicate? How will you honor confidentiality? When will you check in on the relationship?
  • Create goals. What will you work on together during this relationship? Set 2-3 SMART goals and related action steps as a framework for the work and the conversations.
  • Sign an agreement. Develop an agreement that clearly states the expectations and goals. This is your accountability measure and one of the best things that you can do to minimize power dynamics.
  • Be mentee-focused. Mentoring relationships are always about the mentee’s growth and the mentee’s goals. Ask: Where do you want to go and how can I help you get there?
  • Check in on the relationship. Periodically take the time to check in on the relationship. Are your goals still appropriate or do they need to be updated? Are we still working on the right things? Does this relationship need to continue?

 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?