Find a Sherpa Not a Mentor

Why Mentors are Not for Everyone

As of late seems mentorship has become a more common topic of conversation in industry or at the very least it has on my circle of friends and coworkers.

In a similar way coaches seem to be also making their rounds into the tech industry; if ever heard the term Executive Coach, Leadership Coach or similar then you likely know what I mean.

Now, out of the gate I’m highly skeptical about the long term value mentors, coaches or for that matter paid consultants will have in any organization; that said let me start exploring the concept of mentorship and coaches before I introduce the idea of what I refer as a Sherpa.

Simply put a mentor is a more experienced person in the same field you are trying to work in and their role is to provide advice, resources, information, motivation and emotional support to help their mentee.

In the other hand the mentee also has several responsibilities towards the mentor; normally is on the mentee to define the goals and focus of the mentorship relationship and what the intent to gain from the mentor; and here lies one my main problems with mentorship.

You don’t know what you don’t know, and putting the responsibility of defining the learning on the student is often a recipe of failure or at the very least it will be things a lot more difficult.

Coaches while they play a similar role to a mentor they do address some of my main concerns with the mentorship process. Let’s take a look at some of the key differences:

  • Focus: In contrast with the mentor, the learning is directed by the coach rather than the mentee or student.
  • Money: While a mentorship is normally an altruistic endeavour a coach will be financially motivated to deliver specific results
  • Outcome: Coaches are normally focused to work on a specific set of goals or problems rather than the more holistic role that the mentor will often take
  • Time: Since the relationship with the coach is a professional one there is a clear delimiter in terms of time and deadlines.

Now, don’t it’s that I think that mentors or coaches don’t have any value; quite the opposite there are coaches and mentors that are exceptional but those seem to be too few and far in between. More often than not mentors and coaches will fall short of the mentee expectations and potentially damage their efforts to improve.

There are many reasons why a mentor or a coach can fall short on their promises or not deliver; from the lack of clear expectations to the fact that sometimes the most successful people are not the best at coaches or mentors available; experts aren’t always the best teachers so just because a coach or a mentor has an impressive curriculum there is no guarantee that they can transmit and guide their younger and less experienced counter parts.

My main gripe with the idea of mentors and coaches is that they lack stakes; they don’t really have any skin in the game. A mentor and even a coach they don’t really have anything — other than time and possibly a referral in the case of the coach- to lose of if they don’t deliver in the initial goals and promises made to the mentee.

Imagine that you are attempting to climb this huge and dangerous mountain for the first time; and since you want to improve your chances of succeeding you get the help of a mentor to guide you through the whole ordeal; only to find that your will be staying a the bottom of the mountain nice and cosy giving you instructions with a megaphone.

That sounds kind of disappointing doesn’t it? This how at least to me, most of the mentorship and coaching relationship work and while this might be enough and alright for some people I want to argue there is a better way to get the help and guidance that we all need.

Rather than hiring a coach or looking for a mentor; I would urge people to find a Sherpa. Yes, a sherpa to follow the analogy of climbing; Sherpas are mountain climbing guides which sole purpose is to guide climbers to safer areas, help them out and essentially keep them alive.

Sherpas will face the same harsh conditions and take the same level of risk as the climbers will; that is to say they are taking on the same stakes as the climbers.

In a similar way entrepreneurs and tech professionals; should seek help from individuals that are facing the same difficulties and going through similar challenges as they are.

If you are entrepreneur instead of looking at Jeff Bezos or Richard Bransons of the world, look for the help of your peers; those that might a little further ahead on their ventures but still going through the same pains and challenges and that are actively involve in the success of their businesses.

Same way if you are in the tech sector, look for that persons that is slight ahead of you but still very much involved in their field and that is constantly looking to improve and grow.

In contrast with Mentors or coaches who promise to fix all your problems or grow your business from a small startup to a 100million a year business; sherpas are meant to be an organic support system rather than relying on one or two sherpas I urge to search for multiples for every area you are trying to improve.

Built a support network that is available when you need it rather than relying on key insights from a single individual.

And that to me is the key difference, not relaying into a single individual but a network of key people that is willing to support you when needed.

Now, to close I just want to reiterate that is my personal opinion on the subject; and than rather to be close minded to the subject I’m more open to discussion so don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Senior Engineering Lead @Humi, Regularly writing about software engineering and technology

Senior Engineering Lead @Humi, Regularly writing about software engineering and technology