Mentor should always be spelled with a capital “M.”
At most of my big corporate jobs, I, along with all my peers, was inevitably set up with a mentor (lower-case ‘m’), meaning someone more senior in the firm who was supposed to talk to me a couple of times a year. Sometimes these relationships were worthwhile, sometimes they weren’t, but they were always arranged marriages.
The long-term damage was the notion that mentorship could be a check-the-box exercise, as in, “make sure every junior employee has a more senior mentor.”
Mentorship in the true sense of the word is a very rare thing. A Mentor is someone who, over a number of years, is a guiding light in your life, a person who transcends a given role or job and provides perspective on the distant horizons – and helps you figure out if you want to get there, and, if yes, how to do it.
It’s pretty hard to look for mentors, though we all should – with the knowledge that they’re few and far between….maybe you’ll have a handful of them over the course of your life.
The step between here and there are allies (thought partners, co-conspirators, smart friends…call them what you will). These are active, two-way relationships where everyone is creating value for each other. They can run hot and cold given what you’re both up to, and they can and should be nourishing to everyone involved. They are dynamic, and often informal.
What ends up happening is that, carrying around a perverse notion of mentorship, we think the people who can give us the best “advice” (loosely defined) are supposed to be older and more senior and powerful and accomplished than we are, so we look in all the wrong places, and underinvest in finding the real allies we need, today.