The Myth of Mentorship

Based on The YNPN  Discussion Group: Is Mentorship for Me? on January 10 at West End Salvage

Jackie Norris will knock your socks off. First you’ll want her to be your mentor for the rest of your life. Then she’ll make you feel so powerful you’ll realize you don’t need a mentor. At least not in the traditional sense.

You don’t need one mentor. You need 100 mentorship meetings with 100 different people. That’s what Jackie calls situational mentorship.

Jackie Norris, president and CEO of Goodwill of Central Iowa, joined YNPN members for our Discussion Group on mentorship. Her resume is impressive: chief of staff to Michelle Obama, staff member for Al Gore, years in education teaching history and government. But even during her time in Washington, Jackie admits that she never had a traditional mentor.

She outlines traditional mentorship as:

  • Clearly-stated
  • Long-term
  • Has well-defined goals
  • Mutually beneficial
  • Meet on a regular basis
  • Requires accountability
  • One person imparts wisdom to the other

No wonder so many of us never find this ideal relationship. Although it can happen—and it can be inspirational—such a partnership is like a rare Amazonian butterfly. Most of us won’t find one in our lifetimes.

What we can discover, Jackie suggests, is hundreds of other beautiful, local butterflies flitting in and out of our lives. These are situational mentors.

A situational mentorship is:

  • Short-term (1-2 meetings)
  • Transactional
  • Needs a specific agenda for the meeting
  • Requires vulnerability

Vulnerability is especially important. You need to say out loud to yourself and to the other person: “There is something I don’t know. I need to learn this from you.”

That’s why situational mentors are so appealing. No one person can teach you everything you need to know in life. But if you go to lots of different people in different fields and walks of life, then you can gain a breadth of knowledge and wisdom.

When searching for situational mentors, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Find someone you can trust. They need to be able to keep your confidence.
  • Look for people with expertise in areas that you don’t currently have.
  • Think about diversity—in race, gender, age, and field. If you typically reach out to women, make it a point to meet with a man.
  • Consider what that person might want from you. These meetings are transactional, so they will likely want something in return. If you don’t know, ask directly.
  • Don’t always go to the top level of an organization. Think about the rock stars one level down—or the young professionals your age who are on the path to leadership some day.

An agenda is essential to each mentorship meeting. Here is a sample from Jackie:

  1. Get to know each other a little
  2. Ask about the thing you want to know
  3. Ask for two things you are doing well (if relevant)
  4. Ask for two things you could improve on (if relevant)
  5. Ask the other person what they want from you

Our professional culture is obsessed with traditional mentorship, so it can be hard to move away from the idea. But situational mentorship actually gives you more power—over where you want to take your career, who you want to meet with, and what you want to talk about. In the end, you’ll end up with more knowledge, a bigger network, and a better understanding of the nonprofit and business arena in Des Moines.

Jackie reminds us, “You’re not going to get where you’re going alone. You just need to figure out who can help you get there.”


YNPN and NON-CON can help you get there. Mentorship is just one of the many career-related topics we’re covering at NON-CON 2019: I’VE GOT THIS! on February 1 at Grand View University.

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