What is a mentor? A friend, colleague, and adviser, all rolled into one. A mentor is a friend in the sense that he or she has the person's best interests at heart. A mentor is a colleague who is not afraid or unwilling to dispense advice that the individual may not want to hear, but needs to hear. A mentor is an adviser who looks toward the future, who dispenses wisdom that is directed toward the current but mostly the future needs of the individual. Yiddish has a wonderful word for mentor, mensch, a person who can be counted on to be a good friend and to be of assistance in times of need. That's not a bad summary of mentorship.
People have a desire for guidance. Just as children are taught life values by their parents, employees are taught workplace values by their "superiors" (managers, old-timers, retirees). Counsel is a form of advice. The good coach aligns advice within a value system. For example, a coach may advise an employee to show up on time as a means of demonstrating a commitment to fellow employees. Timeliness is a lifestyle value that extends far beyond the work environment. Likewise, the coach may advise an employee to listen more attentively when a colleague speaks. Again, a good life lesson.
Very importantly, coaches give counsel through example. The old adage "Do as I say, not as I do" cannot apply to coaches. A coach who advises an employee to listen, but always talks over other people, undermines her or his own advice. Leader-coaches do not have the luxury of slacking off when it comes to advice giving.
Mentoring, by the way, can be a temporary or a long-term commitment. General George C. Marshall was a mentor to many up-and-coming officers. He kept their names in his famous "black book," and when the time came for a new generation of leaders to rise to the challenge, as happened at the outset of World War II, Marshall knew whom to promote. Many people come back to their mentors for ongoing advice at various stages of their lives. Others seek a mentor for a given assignment. Mentorships, by the way, are gaining in popularity within the corporate arena for two reasons: First, young employees need guidance, particularly when it comes to navigating the sometimes-treacherous waterways of corporate channels, and second, mentors need experience in giving advice as a form of teaching. By being mentors, they learn more about themselves and their potential for greater leadership positions. Mentorship does have mutual rewards.