In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Priscilla Claman writes that the “career strategy of hitching your future to some rising manager is rapidly becoming outdated” because “senior-level managers are no longer the ones with stable jobs.” Instead, she recommends that you form a personal board of directors who can provide a variety of perspectives. She advises that “The people on your board of directors should know more than you about something, be better than you are at something, or offer different points of view.”
I don’t think that mentors are defunct, however I do think the role of mentor has to change to keep up with the times. The structure of work has changed, and we can no longer expect a lifetime career with a single company. It’s much more common that people consider themselves free agents who work with a company for long enough to complete a project, or learn a new skill, and then move on. I’ve often heard people complain that it’s no longer possible to be promoted within a large company, because people from outside are favored over inside people even if they have great ideas. I believe it’s far easier to find success if you appoint yourself as the captain of your own career and establish a plan. That way you can thoughtfully find employment that provides learning opportunities, as well as a paycheck.
In the process of charting a course and monitoring your progress, it is particularly helpful to have a mentor. A good mentor is not necessarily someone who is your professional (or chronological) senior. A good mentor is someone who can help you define your objectives, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, advise you about how to approach work assignments and motivate you as you navigate the ups and downs of finding the right employment on your path. I’d also say it was helpful if your mentor has domain knowledge in the field you want to work in.
So, in summary, I would not say that the role of mentor is defunct, I’d just say it’s changed, as our relationship to work and our careers have changed. Some of my best long-term mentor (and apprentice) relationships were formed with people I met through jobs, and I’d say that our relationship has only improved over time as we have moved on to different work. I don’t have any objection to forming a board of directors, but that relationship serves a different purpose than a mentor.