The other day I was meeting with a young college graduate about her career path. During the conversation, I used the terms ‘mentor’ and ‘networking’ several times as we discussed her strategy options. One reason the conversation proved fruitful was she asked an important question early in the conversation, “What is the difference between a mentor and a networking contact?”
As we discussed these two terms and their definitions, I thought if she had questions about the distinction between the two phrases, I am sure others did as well. Here are some of the thoughts I shared.
A networking contact is an individual with whom you have some connection (common friend, alma mater, group affiliation, etc.) and with whom you would like to exchange information/advice/contacts during the course of a meeting/phone call. There is usually very little history (could be a first meeting) or knowledge of backgrounds between the two individuals and there is no expectation of assistance. Some networking relationships will cease after the initial encounter while others may last a lifetime.
A mentor is an individual who has at least a basic knowledge of you and your background, and often is someone who knows the other individual fairly well in a personal or professional manner. In my experience, current relationships need to evolve and develop into a mentor/mentee bond rather than forcing this connection.
Mentoring relationships tend to be more formalized than a networking contacts – for example, regularly scheduled meetings at specific intervals during the course of a year. There is an expectation of assistance from the mentor to the mentee as the expectations between the two individuals are usually mapped out (number of meetings, what is expected from each party, roles) prior to establishing a mentoring relationship. Finally, mentors AGREE to enter the relationship with mentees and accept the expectations placed upon them.
One dangerous situation occurs when one side views the relationship as mentor/mentee and the other side does not – these misaligned expectations can cause issues between the two individuals. An expectation setting meeting is recommended to help formalize the mentoring relationship and define roles and responsibilities of bother parties. Another common difference between networking and mentoring centers on the role of influence. Networking contacts tend to be more of a symbiotic relationship – I help you and you help me model. Mentoring relationships tend to be more one-sided – master and the apprentice model. While not always true, these are common roles/models.
Both relationships are necessary to one’s career management efforts and should be developed and evaluated on a regular basis. Tomorrow I will share some thoughts on how to formalize an existing relationship into a mentoring relationship.