Networking Isn’t Mentoring

Months ago I had noticed with appreciation how well an executive woman in my industry utilized Twitter — her posts seemed to consistently and seamlessly reflect both her personal and professional personas. Having met her once briefly in the real world I sent her a message on Twitter and told her I was looking to get better at my own social media balance. Would she be willing to invest 15 minutes in helping me get better? It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off. She connected me to her administrative assistant and after comparing challenging calendars we landed on a date a month in the future. Yesterday.

She was kind enough to offer me nearly an hour; I only took 25 minutes.

As we talked she shared the intentionality of her social media presence, her engagement with corporate communications, and the importance of aligning values. She told me I was a great writer and offered to connect me with another blogger who she felt spoke with a similar voice. I gained more from our brief discussion than I would have from reading hundreds of pages in self-help books or listening to hours of podcasts. It was a major accelerator in maturing my thinking about how I show up online and how I need to adapt my own approach.

As we closed and I thanked her for giving up her time — an executive’s scarcest resource — she shared that getting my request had made her day. She told me about others who had given her similar guidance when, like me, she was looking to improve her social presence. We shared a conspiratorial chuckle over the very human response one has to being told that something we do is admired and how it creates a willingness to give others a hand.

It was a wonderful, and classic, example of the power of networking.

At the same time I was preparing to connect with her, I was reaching out to my closest mentees to ask them to characterize our relationship. I told them all the same thing: “I’m thinking of writing a blog post about the difference between networking and mentoring and our relationship is important to me personally and professionally. How would you characterize it and what do you think has helped it be as beneficial as it is?”

Their responses were touching and quickly illuminated that while both types of connections are important for development, there are important differences between building a network and building mentorship.

Mentorship Is Personal

To a person, the people I checked in with noted that although our relationships may have started as professional — connecting with me in the work world and valuing me for my skills and ability to deliver results — all of them shared that they viewed our relationship as a friendship. They expressed numerous ways that our friendships emerged including things like having access to my cell number, seeing and treating them as a whole person, and feeling comfortable going out for dinner. We have all been to each others’ homes, met each others’ family. Somewhere along the way I went from being someone who could help them navigate their career and become someone who could help them find happiness in life.

One person made it explicit. “I have needed you for mentoring, but I honestly just like you as a human. If you had been an English teacher, we would have had less in common to talk about in terms of work shared experiences, but I’d still love to have been your friend. I value you for your very Mel-ness.” Maybe that is why great mentoring relationships transcend employers, industry changes, and retirement. It has to do with the sincere belief that the other person has both the capacity and the capability to help, not because they have to but because they want to.

That is far different than a networking relationship. Sure you might exchange the comfortable pleasantries of your personal life at a networking event, but it is only within a mentoring relationship that you will open up about a significant other struggling with your career success, how a new child is forcing you to make tough trade-offs that you hadn’t considered would be needed, or whether you should take a risky new position or promotion. You have to be vulnerable to share those truths with a mentor and that doesn’t happen if they don’t believe you care about them as a person. You know, a friendship.

Mentoring Is Long-Term

When I think about my most successful mentee relationships, they span years and supersede whatever circumstances brought us together. What I’ve noticed is that networking and mentoring look similar at the beginning — one person reaches out to another person (or is connected with another person) because they have something to offer. I get a lot of mentor recommendations where a colleague of mine says, “So-and-so could really use a mentor and I think you would be great.” We’ll meet, have a great dialogue, the individual will ask a series of specific questions and then…

Poof. Gone.

And while that single great discussion is a great example of networking, it isn’t mentoring. Maybe the person didn’t gel with my personality. Maybe the insights I offered weren’t on point. Maybe they were on point but they didn’t feel there was anything else to be learned. No matter what the reason, in order for a networking moment to shift to mentoring, they must have longevity. Every successful mentoring relationship I have been in (on either side) critically depends on shared history to provide future guidance. Sure, there are moments of significant lean-in and times when the parties take long breaks from connecting, but they are never one and done. For me, the moments that come later in the journey are the most rewarding, offering both parties a much needed chance to gain energy from an important empowering relationship.

Mentoring Is an Investment

Although I know all too well the value of 25 minutes of any executive’s time, it is a small drop in the bucket compared to the time and energy someone dedicates to a successful mentoring relationship. A networking conversation will find its way onto my calendar only when it doesn’t impact either my work results or family commitments. By contrast, a mentoring relationship might intrude into either, depending on the urgency of the need. I’ve been know to step out of family movie night to take a call or apologize to my husband for being on my phone with a mentee. When I say, “It’s so-and-so, they are considering a new position and want my perspective” he knows who it is and why it matters to me. He understands and gives me the space I need.

Beyond time, the investment can also come in the form of giving people a vision for themselves before they have the courage to see it. One truly talented person — someone I believe has the potential to change the world — told me that my investment in her was surprising, that she was unprepared for someone successful to take the time to open doors and give of my time. “At first it was mainly that I looked up to you. [I] saw you as a very strong, educated, successful woman…I wanted to be that and you seemed to think there was something in me that would help me do that one day.”

Investment also comes from taking risk. Another newer relationship started with a simple networking call. I had opened the door to more, but communications went silent. In that case the individual pushed beyond the discomfort because a trusted person “encouraged me to look past the embarrassment I felt in not following through the first time and suggested that I just go for it.” They were willing to put themselves out there because there was a promise of a real opportunity to grow. Only time will tell whether the relationship will blossom and persist.

I value each and every authentic connection I make in the world, from an amazing conversation at a conference lunch to a friendship that spans decades. I try to treat each interaction I have with someone as an opportunity to learn more about the world and in turn myself. Although they are very different experiences, I would’t give up either networking or mentorship.

Fortunately, there’s no reason I have to.

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