Career mentors today seem short on advice but give a mean tour

Career mentors today seem short on advice but give a mean tour

On the second day of his first job, Miguel Valdovinos was shown to his cubicle and introduced to his mentor. The electrical engineer was optimistic: The senior person assigned to guide him through his career at the international electronics company had been on the job since before he was born.

Sure enough, the mentor's first words to the then 22-year-old offered direction. “He told me he would show me where the pens and paper were," Valdovinos recalled. True to his word, the mentor pointed him to the supply cabinet.

And that was about it for the next four years. The only time his mentor took an interest in him, Valdovinos says, was when he messed up. From before Thanksgiving until after Christmas one year, he chose the wrong-size capacitors for circuits he was working on. His supervisor told his manager who told his mentor— who then told him he was doing it wrong. “They allowed it to go on for weeks," says Valdovinos. “I was shocked."

The mentor-mentee relationship used to be a partnership between a manager and a new hire. The experienced boss coached his rookie. When the newbie looked good, the boss looked better. Now, with managers stuck volleying emails, tackling expense-account systems and dodging high-velocity blame, time for teaching has evaporated. The HR answer to this void: the assigned-mentor programme.

These on-paper matches, often based on alma mater or shared skill set, can be awkward. The pairing can become little more than a corporate version of the buddy system. When it works, it's a learning love fest. But, sometimes, the mentor just doesn't like the kid, and the rookie is sent into a tailspin of angst and self-doubt. “When you're a mentee, you're thrown back into kindergarten," says Callie Blyze. “You're trying to cling to this person."

Blyze, 21 years old, was assigned a mentor on her first day as an intern this summer. She sat in a boardroom with 11 other interns, all in suits, waiting nervously as the advisers filed in one-by-one to claim their playmates.

“We looked like we were in our parents’ clothes," says Blyze. Her heart leapt when she heard her name called and anxiously met who she hoped would be her new office BFF (best friends forever).

That day, after a pizza lunch and a quick office tour, Blyze was hopeful. But as the internship progressed, she got the feeling her mentor wasn't that interested in her. She was included in talks about an employee jaunt outside the office for a project. But when it was time to go, she was left behind. “You say ‘What's wrong with me?’ when maybe it's not you, it's the situation," says Blyze.

The assigned-mentor system is the corporate answer to cutbacks, explains Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a way of development he calls “quick and dirty and cheap". It makes fiscal sense to have everybody grab a buddy and help one another out.

But the solution is flawed. Bosses, with increasingly more people to manage, don't have time to give the kind of guidance a new hire requires, so they assign it to someone else. These people have no attachments to their mentee and no stake in the person's future. “You're just leaning on people's citizenship," Cappelli says.

When left to their own devices, new hires often do no better. After college, Noah Brodsky moved to Maui and took a job at a company with a choose-your-own-mentor programme. At 22, and alone in an unfamiliar place, he picked a mentor he hoped would be an adviser and a friend. She was slightly ahead of him on his planned career track and, as a bonus, his next-door neighbour.

For the first six months, Brodsky says, it went swimmingly. Then one day, his mentor became his tormentor. She ordered him to her office and accused him of cutting down the bushes between their houses so he could have a better view of the ocean. He denies her claim, but the clash ended the mentorship on the spot. “She wouldn't even make eye contact with me in the halls," says Brodsky.

Pettiness aside, even if a mentor once held the same position as the mentee, the job duties have likely morphed into something different, resulting in irrelevant advice. The hurdles multiply when the two are in different departments.

Darlene Litam had a trio of supporters at her summer internship: a “buddy", a manager and a mentor. Her buddy was her guide and her manager evaluated her work. Her mentor? Not as clear. He was in another division and “wasn't familiar at all" with what she did, Litam says. She sought his advice only “as a formality".

The best advice she got was from somebody else's buddy. He had been there longer than her buddy and worked on her team. She felt comfortable asking him “day-to-day stupid things", and having him look over her project before showing it to her manager. He made helpful suggestions. “He was kind of like all three," she says. “But," she adds quickly, “that was very unofficial."

(Jared Sandberg is on vacation. Write to