Like friendship and love, the mentor-protege' relationship demands time, the intimacy of mutual confiding and reciprocal service.
But according to Reba L. Keele, associate professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young, inconsistencies in defining that relationship are partially to blame for an unhealthly emphasis on finding mentors.
"We're so fixated on mentors that we try to rename every professional relationship in terms of it," says Keele, who criticizes researchers for broadening definitions that produce statistics exaggerating the frequency and importance of mentoring.
Webster defines the mentor as "a wise, loyal adviser." Early mentor research in the late '70s defined the role as someone who "took a personal interest in your career and who guided and sponsored you" and, adds Keele, saw the mentor more specifically as coach, role model, protector, teacher, advocate, sponsor, host, guide, exemplar, provider of moral support and facilitator of the prote'ge''s dream.
But many surveys that indicate most successful professionals have mentors don't always apply a detailed definition.
For instance, says Keele, one recent study counted paid employment counselors as mentors.
Keele says her studies suggest instead a high incidence of close colleague relationships, with mentoring relationships the exception.
"If only one-quarter of workers have mentors," says Keele, "the heavy emphasis is a disservice to those who invest a great deal of energy in trying to find a mentor."