Are Mentors Cheerleaders or Taskmasters?

The job of a mentor is to enable change in their charges by getting them to think and act in a more effective way. They help them to see the light and give them the tools and the belief to move towards it.

Due to the very fact that graduates have little experience in their careers, although may have relevant transferable experiences, mentoring will almost certainly form a crucial part of their development as they establish themselves in their careers.

When it comes to questions of motivation and personal development, there is never “a right approach” to individual challenges, but to simplify things, you could maybe identify two key but diverging strategies. You can either push them towards their goal, or you can pull them. Either way, they will learn about themselves along the way, but the two experiences are very different.

Pulling people towards an achievement is the role of a cheerleader mentor. They encourage people to build on their strengths and give them the courage of their convictions. This should not be confused with a physical dragging to the end point – it is more of a magnetic “come on, you know you can do it” approach. When someone possesses the basic tools for success, the cheerleading approach gives them the mental fortitude to get over the line.

Cheerleading works well when the basics are in place.

On the other hand, if the task is so new that the mentee doesn’t have a clue how to accomplish it, a different approach is required. A taskmaster mentor helps to direct their people in the right direction, with smaller steps and a more prescriptive approach. They use their experience to foresee difficulties and adopt a hand-holding approach until the end is in sight. This practical assistance is vital, and while making mistakes is valuable, sometimes you simply need to rely on the experience of someone who has been there before.

Taskmasters pass on their knowledge in a constructive way.

So, to come to the question in the title. Well, it should be fairly obvious that mentors should be both cheerleaders and taskmasters (even with the same mentee). It may be that in uncertain situations their charge requires a step-by-step approach, and at other more familiar but nonetheless challenging times, they require more of a confidence boost. The best mentors have a whole range of subtle behaviours like this to draw upon as the situation demands, and the act of mentoring someone else requires a whole new approach.

It is the case, however that most mentors lean towards one approach or the other. As a graduate in the early stages of your career, you may well be looking for a mentor and know that you need some detailed guidance towards your goal; in which case you should look out for more task-oriented members of the senior team. If you have a rough idea of how to do things, but need someone to give you the confidence to spread your wings and make the best of it, you will need a more inspirational figure by your side. It might seem difficult to guess who is going to be the best fit as your mentor, but this isn’t the worst aspect to consider first.

Although a mentor can indeed be both, would you prefer a taskmaster or a cheerleader?