A Mentor is a Librarian and a Confidante.
During my seven and a half years of full-time and part-time leadership and advisory work at Airbnb, I was fortunate to be in more than one hundred mentor relationships. Often, I was a “mentern,” a mentor, and an intern at the same time. I was learning as much from these young folks (almost all Millennials) as they were from me.
When I’m overwhelmed with inputs, I tend to categorize things. With this firehose of mentorship opportunities cascading my way, I stumbled upon a convenient way to understand the two broad types of mentorship.
When a mentee sees you as a subject matter expert, you are a Librarian. That may not sound sexy, but your know-how and know-who are exceptionally valuable. At Airbnb, a data scientist trying to propose a pricing mechanism for hosts might ask me about the tools hotels use to optimize their guest room pricing. When I was this kind of mentor, the mentee asked the questions, I answered them, and often directed the mentee to articles, white papers, books, and people who could give them a deeper dive into this subject. On average, this kind of relationship with a mentee lasted three sessions. It was finite. They were looking for answers that, hopefully, I could supply.
The other kind of mentorship relationship tends to be more personal. Your role as the Confidante is to help your mentee understand themselves more as a human. Instead of you answering the questions, you’re more often asking the questions. I’ll never forget when one of my Airbnb direct reports told me I was her Confidante. I laughed and told her she hadn’t shared any juicy details with me yet. She responded, “In my part of France, a confidante is the one who gives you confidence. You help me see what I do well and what needs work, along with a roadmap of how I can improve.” This kind of relationship is far from finite as it may last months or years, and you may have a life-altering impact on this mentee’s life.
In sum, not all mentorships fit neatly into one or the other type as, in some, you might start as a Librarian and evolve into a Confidante. But, I’ve found this categorization to be immensely clarifying in helping me understand how I might best serve my mentee.