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Notable Mentors and Informal Mentorships

November 9, 2020

Long before organizations took mentoring initiatives seriously and incorporated programs offering mentorship to employees, the world was full of people hungry for success and thirsty for more inside knowledge setting them on the path toward their goals. The way to obtain this experience was to find someone in an area of expertise that stood out and to seek guidance from them, developing a partnership that helped them to gain proficiency in those areas. 

The process was originally more informal, in terms of time for development, communication and the structure, where the ins and outs were strictly decided by each party – the mentor and their protégé. But the purpose of mentoring has always remained the same and there will always be a need for it. 

Over history, there have been many notable mentorships, and some of the most successful people in the world have cited their reasons for success as having a mentor and being able to manage their partnerships informally as their careers started to take off. 

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg

Before Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, he revealed that he had served as a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg during the writing of his biography. This came as a shock to so many people, given Steve Jobs’ management style, where he was seen to be ruthless and demanding. It was difficult to see how he would have formed a bond with Zuckerberg in that mentorship wasn’t his style of motivation and notably that Zuckerberg was CEO of Facebook who had previously been known to butt heads with Apple. But after Jobs’ death, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the mentorship by paying tribute to Steve Jobs, thanking him for being a mentor and a friend. So, how exactly did this pairing work?

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg may have both carried a natural professional rivalry, but both admitted that they admired one another and respected each other and what they were both trying to do for the world with their platforms. Jobs gave Zuckerberg advice on how to reconnect with his original mission when things weren’t going so well with Facebook in the early days, and shared places he had been (specifically a temple in India) that had allowed him to do that when he needed to remind himself of what he wanted to achieve with Apple. 

This is the kind of mentorship that is highly notable due to the success of both individuals and the companies involved in the partnership as well as the longevity that they both still have to this day. 

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates

Being the second wealthiest man in the world doesn’t come easily, and this is especially true for Bill Gates who co-founded Microsoft and has recently stepped down from his CEO position and is currently pursuing philanthropic endeavours including climate change and educational development. To come up in a world with success with such retention would not be achievable alone. And Bill Gates cites Warren Buffett, a long-time friend and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, as one of his mentors. 

Both parties have stated in the past that their meeting was initially not of choice and that they were both reluctant to spend time with each other, wondering what they would have to talk about and why they should take time out of their day to be polite. But they hit it off and Buffett challenged Gates with questions that made him think about things in a different way regarding IBM and Microsoft. 

Since their fateful meeting, a mentorship and great friendship blossomed, with Bill Gates stating that he has learned how to manage his time and prioritize people as a result from his meetings with Warren Buffett. But it wasn’t just software and business management on Gates’ mind and when he turned to philanthropy he credits Buffett as the person who ignited the desire to be more impactful in other ways. He wasn’t just a good businessman who dealt in stocks or analyzing companies, he was also good at attacking world problems and encouraging others to join him in the fight against poverty and disease, donating large amounts of his own wealth to the cause. Bill Gates has used the same philosophies and developed what could have been a run of the mill mentorship into a global recognized partnership with his ventures. 

Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams

From a young age, J.J. Abrams has been inspired by the work of Steven Spielberg. Through an opportunity to organise and clean up old movies that Spielberg had thought were lost when Abrams was a young teenage director, he inherited a long-time mentor and friend in Spielberg. 

Since then, Steven Spielberg was impressed by J.J. Abrams work ethic and creativity and has supported him on his filmmaking journey, collaborating on the film Super 8 with Abrams directing and Spielberg producing. Steven Spielberg also encouraged Kathleen Kennedy at Disney to hire Abrams as director for the upcoming Star Wars production – The Force Awakens in 2015. 

J.J. Abrams has talked very candidly about looking to Steven Spielberg for guidance in the past, for help with scripts, film endings (Cloverfield) and budgets, where the mentorship really helped him with his productions. 

Richard Branson and Sir Freddie Laker

Back when Richard Branson was having trouble getting Virgin Atlantic off the ground, he sought guidance from airline engineer, Sir Freddie Laker. He has stated he wouldn’t have made it in the airline industry if it wasn’t for his mentor, Sir Freddie, and believed that in order for it to work, he needed to believe and accept that he needed a mentor, and had to get rid of ego and nervous energy to be successful in his new approach. 

Due to the nature of what they were both trying to achieve, there was a lot of learning in failure, and Branson was very clear in saying that a good mentor not only shares how to be successful with their mentee, but also the failures so they can learn from them, as most successful people will have experienced failure in their road to the top. 

Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou

Oprah Winfrey met her mentor Maya Angelou back in the 1970s when Oprah was in her twenties and just starting out her career and credits her as being the greatest mentor she’d ever known. She called Angelou one of the greatest influences in her life. Winfrey was already a fan of Maya Angelou and connected to her through her award-winning book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.

Winfrey was looking for a way to forward her business and personal relationships and looked to Angelou for advice on how to learn lessons on people, trust and building relationships. Oprah Winfrey said that she always remembers the most solid piece of advice she received from Maya Angelou was that actions speak louder than words and not to take a person on who they say they are, but how they act toward you. 

Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty and through her determination, drive and focus on relationships with great influencers, became a millionaire by the age of 32. By 2000 her net worth was $800 million. In terms of mentorship, Oprah states that she wouldn’t be where she is today without advice and guidance from Maya Angelou. 

The Informal Mentoring Process

The difference between the above-mentioned pairings and the modern-day traditional sense of mentoring is that the process is usually informal. Now, we aren’t usually given such a wide insight into the mentor relationships of the rich and famous or the biggest entrepreneurs on the planet, but we can always see by result that this type of mentorship works. 

In an informal setting, it can be up to either party to initiate the relationship having heard of each other and acquired knowledge of similar goals prior to meeting. Or it could be that a chance meeting has sparked a connection that one or both individuals feel could blossom on a professional level. Informal mentorships, however, still require the same commitment to one schedule on paper for each person so get something out of it and not end with resentment at unkept promises and false partnerships.

A major study from the Academy of Management Journal found that people in informal mentorships were generally happier than those in formal mentorships. But this usually had something to do with the fact that it was structured informally, and the selection process was so specific that it was easier to forge the connection when both parties already knew or had some idea of each other and their individual goals. 

Mentoring in an informal capacity also allows for multiple mentorships in an easier fashion than in a formal setting. There is no rule to how many mentors one person can have, and it is commonly seen in different ways. People can cite their parents as great mentors – sometimes called natural mentors, whilst pursuing a formal mentorship for career progression at work and an informal mentorship with someone outside of their company who they generally look up to or aspire to be like. 

Having an informal mentor does mean that structure and timescales fall by the wayside and instead priorities turn toward what can be gained overall. A typical formal partnership in an organizational setting would last from nine months to a year and have regular reviews, meetings and purposeful challenges where the mentee would collect their learnings and retain knowledge for later use. An informal mentorship can last a lifetime, with an arising problem being the reason for seeking out the mentor in the first place. Challenges can arise at any point and there wouldn’t necessarily be a set structure for meetings and phone calls. In fact, mentors in an informal capacity may only be called upon for advice to begin with, with the mentee learning and presenting their outcomes for discussion about how things could be done differently next time round or what they have learned.

Informal mentorship is mostly about observation and networking. Without time constraints and specific goal setting, it can be about watching and learning how the mentor does what they do and how they are maintaining the success that the mentee desires. This process does not work for some people, but by the success stories above, it certainly works for others. 

Anyone can pursue an informal mentorship, it isn’t strictly reserved for the modern-day multi-millionaires, movie directors and film stars, but the main consideration when seeking out an informal mentor is thinking about what is to be gained from it. Sharing the same values or at least having an open mind to their values is crucial but compromising on your own values can lead to resentment, so taking time to think about what personal values are important is a must for all people seeking a new mentor.

This type of mentor relationship is also not to be forced. Anyone can look up to or admire a person from afar and perceive their experience in a non-realistic way. The only way to find out what their real experiences are is to talk to them – informally. Get to know them, invite them to lunch, see if they are open to sharing their successes and failures to grasp the real intricacies of what makes them tick. This makes for an easier decision-making process as to whether they would be a good mentor, before jumping in and asking them blindly. 

And finally, once the subject of an informal mentorship has been broached, both parties have to clarify their expectations. Remembering that this isn’t a formal mentorship and scheduled meetings, and feedback sessions are unlikely to happen like clockwork. What could happen though, is a chance to shadow them in real world situations, such as their own meetings, family or professional events and even downtime and social outings. The expectations could be that the mentor can be learned from, with little disruption to their own life.

Deciding upon a mentor in this capacity requires a lot of self-starting, and willingness to focus on the connection and what advice the mentor has to give. As seen from people like Bill Gates or J.J. Abrams, an informal mentor, is someone who will have a presence over a life-time and not just through a series of bi-monthly emails or phone calls, but can lead to some of the biggest success stories the world has ever seen.


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