The First Successful Mentor was a Woman

By David Marquet

The original Mentor failed – what went wrong? According to this Forbes article, how a woman succeeded provides insight for today’s mentorship.

In Homer’s epic tale, when Odysseus leaves for the Trojan war he charges his friend, Mentor, with advising and teaching his young son, Telemachus, so Telemachus can fulfill his kingly potential.

However, Mentor fails. By the time Telemachus is 20, the household has fallen into disarray with, among other things, a group of reprobate suitors lusting after Queen Penelope, eating from the royal stocks, and making themselves at home. Further, Telemachus cowers before this group, and seems incapable of standing up to the situation. Instead, he longs for his father’s return.

It takes the goddess Athena (also called Minerva) who disguises herself as Mentor, to get Telemachus on track, goad him to action, and find his father. Using various disguises, Athena guides and protects Telemachus on his journey, sometimes dispensing advice, sometimes deflecting spears, and sometimes helping with management tasks like finding a crew for his ship. Eventually, Telemachus and his father return home and rid the house of the suitors.

Mentor failed, but the disguised Athena, appearing as Mentor, succeeds. Athena is a goddess with great powers, who not only guided Telemachus, but intervened in overt and deliberate ways to ensure his success.

Fast forward 3000 years.

The image of the all-knowing and all-powerful mentor, guiding and protecting his (actually her) naïve but eager protégé is alluring. But this does not mean an organized company mentorship program is warranted.

The problem is that inside a company, the personal mentor-protégé relationship undermines equal-opportunity, fairness-based promotion and development programs unless applied equally to everyone. The mentor’s duty to advance their protégé’s career over others’ would only be appropriate if enacted by someone not associated with the current workplace such as a family member or friend of the family, former boss, colleague or fellow industry professional.

Here’s what to do instead:

First, every leader should view themselves as having the responsibility to mentor each and every one of their direct reports equally. Since this is a natural and automatic part of corporate leadership and the natural result of the hierarchical structure in the organization, there should not be the need for a program. So mentoring is a leadership responsibility, like coaching and providing performance feedback.

Second, companies should allow and encourage mentor-protégé relationships outside the organization, which cannot be seen as unfair or discriminatory.

Third, for internal company programs, the only appropriate mentors are those so low in the organization that they have no influence over the promotion process. In this case, a second-year veteran could legitimately mentor a newly hired team member without raising the issues of patronage. The mentor (we would call them sea-dad) has the responsibility to get the new employee up to speed quickly but then sets them free. The relationship is limited to 12 months.

Fourth, a successful alternative to an internal mentoring program is to adopt the concept of wingman, leadership buddy, or accountability partner. This is a peer-to-peer relationship, self-organized, between two people who agree to check each other’s behavior and provide unvarnished feedback. Since peers are unable to influence the advancement of peers, except in a very indirect way, this does not violate the fairness criteria.

Since the company-appointed Mentor failed, if you must have a “mentor” program, at least call it the Athena program.

About David Marquet

David Marquet is a former contributor to Forbes, who writes about leadership. “The Original Mentor Failed – What Went Wrong?” appeared in January 2017


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