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The Difference Between a Career Mentor & an Accountability Partner

Silver coach whistle on a white string in front of blackboard with x's and o's drawn on it.

You have ambitious goals for your career, and you're not afraid to take major steps to ensure you meet these objectives. Staying on track can be difficult when you're caught up with the day-to-day concerns of your job and personal life.

That’s where an outside perspective comes in handy. This can take numerous forms, but two approaches are especially common among driven professionals: career mentors and career accountability partners. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they reference different roles and relationships.

Ready to take your job performance to the next level? You don't need to go it alone. Below, we explain how resources like mentors and accountability partners can boost your career and why you'll benefit from both relationships.

What Is a Career Mentor?

At its most basic level, a mentorship involves a mutually beneficial, career-oriented partnership. Typically, one of the professionals involved in the mentorship has more experience or has achieved a higher rung on the career ladder. Still, both parties have much to gain; the mentee receives insight from years of hard work, while the mentor enjoys a fresh perspective.

In his Network Mastery Podcast, Matt Hall explains that the best mentor relationships focus on the long-term, with the goal of promoting success within a shared industry. This relationship tends to take on an informal approach, with compensation rarely entering the picture.

Hall adds that mentors serve a crucial role in professional development.

"[Mentors are] there to be a soundboard, help you brainstorm ideas… somebody you can check in with every week to learn something new,” he says.

Mentorship expert Martina Castro expands on the sometimes casual, yet nearly always transformational nature of this relationship in an intriguing episode from NPR's Life Kit. According to Castro, mentorship often involves little moments in which a mentor provides a compelling perspective. This can take the form of advice but could also involve a few simple words or a properly phrased question.

How Can You Find a Mentor?

Mentors are all around you, and yet the prospect of developing this important relationship can feel intimidating. According to Hall, however, you may already have a mentor and not know it.

In all likelihood, you entered your profession of choice with a mentor already established. Perhaps this individual piqued your interest in a particular field or position. Otherwise, you likely know at least a few people who have provided some element of guidance and are ready to take that next step toward becoming a true mentor.

The Center for Mentoring Excellence's Lisa Fain echoes this sentiment, highlighting the value of existing relationships as a starting point in your hunt. If this doesn't immediately lead to a mentor, Fain suggests "letting people know what your learning goal is and asking them who… they know who can help you with that learning goal."

Once you've identified a potential mentor, it's important to develop a relationship before making any official requests. Fain describes this process as the mentorship equivalent of a first date. This is your opportunity to discover how your mentor will fit into your life. The right pairing is essential, as your goal should be to develop a long-term relationship that will ultimately benefit both professionals.

How Can You Get the Most Out of Your Mentor?

Finding and developing rapport with a professional mentor is just the beginning. Because this person can play such an important role in your career journey, it is imperative that you nurture this relationship over time. This means checking in regularly and engaging in meaningful discussions that benefit both the mentor and mentee.

However, more important than the amount of time you spend together is the quality of that time. Don't seek a mentor simply because you want validation.

This is your chance to be challenged as a professional so that you can grow and learn. To that end, it's important to limit venting and instead focus on what you can realistically change or accomplish. NPR's Anjuli Sastry points out:

"Mentoring relationships are not therapy,” says NPR’s Anjuli Sastry. “Balance is essential, of course, as it may sometimes be necessary to discuss difficult circumstances so that the mentor understands the full picture."

What Is a Career Accountability Partner?

Most professionals are familiar with the concept of the career mentor, but the idea of an accountability partner remains misunderstood. Some of this confusion stems from the crossover between these roles, because mentors and accountability partners often hold similar functions.

How Can You Find an Accountability Partner?

Securing an accountability partner may require more effort than developing a professional relationship with a mentor. With mentors, the difficulty lies not in finding somebody to take on this role, but rather in actually approaching this person and striking up a natural and useful relationship.

When seeking an accountability partner, you'll need to do more upfront research, but the process of approaching and asking somebody to serve this role may actually prove easier. This derives, in part, from the accountability partner's more defined — and often short-term — role in your professional development.

Paid Accountability Partner Services

When you need to level up your fitness regimen, you hire a personal trainer. This may cost more than simply maintaining a gym membership, but it will also deliver the motivation and knowledge needed to deliver impressive, long-lasting results.

The same concept can apply to your career. If you hire an accountability partner (often, in this context, referred to as an accountability coach), you can take confidence in knowing that this person is invested in your professional journey and committed to keeping you on track.

What's more, the exchange of payment brings an extra level of motivation that might not exist without a purposeful transaction.

Accountability coach Katrina Widener explains, "When money exchanges hands, there's something on the line. You don't want to waste your hard-earned cash, so you get it done."

Free Accountability Partner Services

If you're currently unable or unwilling to invest in a paid accountability partner, you may be able to find similar benefits from a free alternative. This may look, to an extent, like a professional mentorship — but with more structure, and, in all likelihood, a level playing field.

With a free accountability partner, you might set specific goals and timelines, with the intention of helping one another remain on track as you take on specific challenges. As with mentors, you can check in from time to time. Once you've achieved your stated goals, you may go your separate ways, or, if you find the relationship valuable, set new objectives and continue to hold each other accountable.

Another key difference between mentors and no-cost accountability partners? With mentorships, one person typically holds more experience and an elevated status. Accountability partners, however, tend to be at or near the same level in terms of education and professional background.

This lends such a relationship unique advantages that might not be present in a typical mentorship. For example, accountability partners may relate to one another and find it easier to commiserate about shared workplace challenges. As with mentorship, it's best not to focus on venting. But in the right context, blowing off steam can be helpful.

How Can You Get the Most Out of Your Accountability Partner?

How you take advantage of your accountability partnership will depend, to a large extent, on whether you opt for a paid approach. If you choose to hire an accountability partner or coach, you'll want to research thoroughly to ensure that this person is capable of helping you meet your most ambitious goals. Prior to committing, determine whether your top candidates have experience working with professionals in your field or at your level on the career ladder.

It's also critical that you understand your paid accountability partner's philosophy and general approach. Do you need a brutally honest, tell-it-like-it-is style to keep you motivated? Or would positive, rah-rah interactions serve you better?

Identify key traits you want in your accountability coach and make your final choice accordingly. Don't be afraid to communicate your priorities and preferences during your initial meeting. Remember, rapport is just as important with a paid service as it is in an organic mentorship journey.

Using Both Mentors & Accountability Partners

There's no need to choose between mentors and accountability partners. Because these individuals take such different forms and serve such distinctive purposes, it's easy and advisable to simultaneously weave them into your professional life.

To ensure both relationships are productive, get specific with what you want from each type of interaction. While some overlap may exist, your meetings with your mentor should look at least somewhat different from your work with an accountability partner. Often, you'll select short-term endeavors to tackle alongside your accountability partner, while your mentorship journey will focus on the big picture.

To help illustrate the varying roles that mentors and accountability partners can play in a blossoming career, we've provided a few inspiring examples:

  • You're ready for a raise. Don't expect validation from either your mentor or accountability partner. Instead, your mentor should encourage you to reflect on why, exactly, you deserve a raise. Mentor-prompted critical thinking will help you frame your request as you seek additional compensation. Meanwhile, your accountability partner can keep you from backing down or getting cold feet. If you need to accomplish specific goals before you seek a raise, your accountability partner can assist with these, as well.
  • You're gunning for a promotion. This is a similar situation, but it may require additional steps to achieve your goal. Your mentor may have previously followed a similar path to your intended career trajectory and, as such, should provide plenty of food for thought. Your accountability partner can break down the process of obtaining a promotion into specific steps and ensure that you follow through, even when you feel discouraged.
  • You're contemplating a lateral career move. Your mentor can assist with soul searching, so you understand why you're ready for change and what you might get out of a career transition. An accountability partner will help you take concrete steps to make a lateral switch realistic. For example, you may first require certification or other forms of training. Your accountability partner will ensure that you continue to make progress toward these goals.
  • You're dealing with a toxic workplace environment. A mentor within your organization could be valuable in this situation, as this person can help you determine how, specifically, your concerns can be addressed with colleagues, supervisors, or HR. If you conclude that such toxicity calls for a new job, your accountability partner will keep you from settling for the status quo, and instead motivate you to seek the nurturing, positive atmosphere you deserve.
  • You're worried about handling a high-stakes project. This is the perfect situation for turning to an accountability partner. Your partner can help you identify short-term goals for your project, as well as actionable strategies to get you on the path to success. Once you've completed the project, you might reflect with your mentor on how this accomplishment could play into your long-term career objectives.
  • You want more work-life balance. Often, professionals aren't aware that they're struggling with work-life balance until their mentors point out that they seem overwhelmed and in need of a break. Even if your mentor doesn't point this out, you may be encouraged by stories of your mentor's biggest breakthroughs occurring after taking time to recharge. You may be surprised that accountability can play into work-life balance much like it would other goals: Your partner or coach will help you develop a specific objective for finding balance (such as setting limits on your need to answer email away from the office) and guide you in this short-term effort.

No matter your field or status as a professional, you deserve a supportive team of advocates prepared to help you achieve both your short and long-term objectives. Your efforts to develop relationships with mentors and accountability partners will pay off with professional growth and greater career satisfaction. Don't waste this opportunity to take your career to the next level.


Image courtesy of iStock.com/artisteer


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Berxi™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice.

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