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mentoringWhat is Mentoring? Description

Mentoring could be described as the facilitation of learning towards long term goals. Dr Beverly Kaye (2003) pronounced that ‘behind every successful person, there is one elementary truth: somewhere, somehow, someone cared about their growth and development, this person was a mentor’. In researching mentors one finds that the name of a mentor appears in the history of many successful people with an almost expectant frequency:

  • Freddie Laker mentored Richard Branson (Business).
  • Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great (Historic Politics).
  • Mel Gibson mentored Heath Ledger (Acting).
  • Eddy Merckx mentored Lance Armstrong (Cycle Racing).
  • Haydn mentored Beethoven and Mozart (Music).
  • Merlin was the mentor of Arthur (Legend).

There is a paradigm shift taking place with the concept of mentoring which has evolved over the years. Mentoring is seen as a two way relationship premised on a trusting relationship where both parties benefit from the relationship. This style of relationship creates a learning and development environment for both parties and when implemented in either a program or culture can create a similar work environment in an organization. Part of the paradigm shift is the move from the traditional view of mentoring to modern or effective mentoring. Mentoring is about personal and professional growth. Mentoring is about the development of critical thinking skills using the Socratic Method as a means to develop those skills.

Cultural Aspects of Mentoring

Cultural aspects are highly relevant in the definition of mentoring, the traditional American 'career orientated' mentoring, termed 'sponsorship' has been unpalatable to the European market, the concept of a ‘father figure’ doesn’t sit well with the greater need for self-direction. The European 'developmental mentoring', with the focus on 'personal growth and learning' (Clutterbuck, 1998) has centered on ‘mutual support’, to European sensibilities this ‘feels’ a healthier option. Though whatever the point of reference one approaches defining the term, at its core mentoring encompasses a ‘strong learning theme’ (Egan, 2002) and acts as a ‘change catalyst’ (Johnson et al, 1999).

Professional Mentoring

The professional coach can have specific views that ‘mentoring invents a future based on the expertise and wisdom of another…mentors freely give advice and opinions regarding strategies and policies’ (Zeus and Skiffington, 2005). The primary differential for Mentoring is that it has ‘overtones of implying that the older and wiser mentors will be passing on their advice and also that they may be able to act as a patron to the mentee’ (Rogers, 2004), which can be directly linked to the etymology of the word itself, to the practitioner/academic mentoring is positioned much more around the ‘whole person and the big picture’ (Cranwell-Ward et al, 2004). Mentoring is the more strategic, organic and holistic process. ‘Mentors talk about their own personal experience. With experience, any leader can act as a mentor and offer advice and a hand up’ (Rosinski, 2003). Though as recently as the 1990’s leading writers in the field were stating that ‘it is necessary to dazzle the protégé with knowledge and experience’ (Clutterbuck, 1991). And that a mentor is a ‘professional person who is a wise’ (Caruso, 1992). A ‘career friend’ (Rolfe-Flett, 1996).

Recent view towards Mentoring

The approach of a new millennium engendered a more commercial viewpoint around the validity of mentoring and coaching. We see a shift to a focus on the mentor being ‘an experienced, objective sounding-board with the power to influence events’ (Conway, 1995) and the application of a learning organization alignment. ‘To help and support people to manage their own learning in order to maximize their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be’ (Parsloe, 1999). The move to 2000 identifies a shift to a more rounded and inclusive approach, with the mentor as a person who, ‘embodies a whole spectrum of roles’ (Connor et al, 2000). A person who ‘provides guidance and support, facilitates, enables’ (Henley Management College, 2000). Most recently this has been extended to the mentors role being ‘holistic’, based on ‘reflective learning’, being ‘akin to pastoral care’ (Clutterbuck, 2004) and being ‘big picture’ (Cranwell et al, 2004).

Company definitions of Mentoring

Interestingly within each business that identifies itself as operating a mentor program, there appears the need to define for a niche internal audience. So different companies have subtlety different descriptions of mentoring.

  • For Avaya, 'Mentoring is a term used to help, advise and guide employees through the complexities of business'.
  • At EDS, 'Mentoring is a mutual learning partnership in which individuals assist each other with personal and career development through coaching, role modeling, counseling, sharing knowledge and providing emotional support'.
  • Within Abbey, 'Mentoring is a relationship, not just a procedure or activity, where one person professionally assists the development of another outside of the normal manager/subordinate relationship'.
  • For Bennetts, 'A mentor is a person who achieves a one-to-one developmental relationship with a learner and one whom the learner identifies as having enabled personal growth to take place'. (Cranwell-ward et al, 2004).

The question whether Coaching is a subset of mentoring indicates that appropriate roles may change as the mentoring relationship develops…. coach, facilitator, sounding board, critical friend, networker, role model. (Connor et al, 2000), giving the impression that mentoring sits in the lead position with a subset of aligned roles; with non academic writers also suggesting that mentoring is the model for coaching and that mentoring as a working title is too formal, thus they utilize the word coach as it is a more readily palatable (Hudson, 1999).

Origin of Mentoring. HistoryOrigin of Mentoring. History

The history of mentoring dates back to when Mentor first appears in Homer’s Odyssey (875BC:Conjecture) where Mentor is charged by King Odysseus to watch over his son Telemachus and his palace while he was fighting in the Trojan War. Telemachus was Athena's favorite (Rieu, 1946) stating that she would 'always stand by Telemachus's side and guard him throughout all his adventures'. Athena, the goddess of 'War & Wisdom', took Mentor's form so as to guide counsel and empower both Odysseus and his son at various points in the Odyssey.

On studying the etymology of the word ‘mentor’ we find it originates from the Greek: Men-'one who thinks', 'tor' masculine suffix (Klein, 1967). Linking this to the actual guidance coming from a woman, we can deduce that the creation of the word relates directly to the time in history when men were a dominant power, by hierarchical rather than intellectual capacity. This use of the word mentor as a ‘trusted guide’ has proliferated to this day.

The first recorded modern usage of the term can be traced to a 1699 book entitled Les Adventures de Telemaque, by the French writer Francois Fenelon (Roberts, 1999). In this book the lead character is that of Mentor, ‘Telemaque’ itself was an imitation of Homer’s classic The Odyssey. The word mentor did not seem to appear in the English language before 1750 (Anderson and Shannon, 1995), the Oxford English Dictionary stating that the word was first used in 1750 by Chestere in ‘Letters to Son, 8th March’. It is this timeline that would lead some to believe that mentoring disappeared and re-emerged, when in actuality, regardless of its title, the process has been consistent throughout European history. Starting with the ongoing monastic mentoring as written about by Saint Bede, editor of the critical edition of De Corpore. The monastic mentor continues throughout history to this day. It is recorded in 1511 that Luther and his monastic mentor, Johann von Staupitz sat and discussed multiple themes (Christianity today, 2006). The ‘apprentice to the craftsman’ was also a prevalent phenomenon throughout the industrial age. In 1640 apprenticeship actually meant to be ‘indentured’, which was akin to ownership. An apprentice served up to 12 years or until the age of 21.

Today in comparison the focus is on competence as opposed to time served. Generally ‘little consideration is given to the British apprentice system doubtless owing to the lack of evidence’ (Thomas, 1929). Though instruction of sons by fathers is admittedly ancient, there was also a formal method by which a young person would be taught by the master craftsman, though interestingly the young apprentice was considered a chattel; which would indicate a less than equal relationship, which years later is demonstrated in the ‘developmental vs. sponsored’ forms of mentoring. Mentoring made its preview via Levinson’s (1978) work ‘The Season's of a man’s life’, with its reference to a 'life cycle', it acted as a catalyst for the 1990’s in mentoring on a wider forum. This work argued ‘the need for mentors to improve the transition from 'young adulthood' to 'authoritive maturity'. Levinson’s developmental theory consists of universal stages or phases that extends from the infancy state to the elderly state. During the last decade there has been a distinct parallel between the perceived validity of mentoring and coaching, with writers reporting a 'paucity' of information on the theory of the mentoring role (Wynch, 1986) and cautioning against the abundant 'pragmatic' activity around mentoring is at odds to the scarcity of 'empirical' activity (Little, 1990). The defining of Mentoring as a term does little to increase the confidence of the potential client in this regard.

Usage of Mentoring. Applications

When you look back at the history of mentoring you will see that it has had many different forms. The traditional style of mentoring with an older more experience person mentoring a junior person primarily in a work related role is the one that most can equate to. There is a paradigm shift in moving more towards effective or modern mentoring and less of a focus on the traditional style. Effective mentoring focuses on personal and professional growth and the development of critical thinking skills. It also helps the participants in learning effective communication skills and how to build a trusted relationship. Mentoring can be part of the solution to address a number of organizational challenges such as the aging work force, talent shortages, succession planning/succession development, leadership talent shortages to name but a few. The development of a mentoring culture is beginning to become more topical in the discussions around the power of mentoring and the business value that it can bring. Mentoring can also provide a huge benefit in the personal growth of an individual which will also have an impact on their professional growth as well.

  • Developmental mentoring.
  • Sponsored mentoring.
  • Workplace mentoring.
  • Life mentoring.
  • Peer mentoring.

Steps in the Mentoring. Process

Mentoring it is very much relationship based. The relationship process can be broken down into three phases:

  1. Trusting Phase: The most important phase is the “trusting phase” where the mentor and the mentee will work together to develop a trusted relationship. This may require both parties to share something of a personal nature in order to gain the trust of their counterpart. The trusting phase in duration can be one meeting to as many as five or six depending on your ability to build that trust.
  2. Learning and Development Phase. This is where the “heavy lifting” is done. The mentor and mentee work at growing personally and professionally during this time frame. The duration of this phase is open ended but will evolve from weekly meetings to bi-weekly and monthly meetings based on the agreement of both parties.
  3. Maintenance Phase: Contact is still maintained with each other but it can be monthly, every six months or perhaps once a year just to make sure things are going well. You can revert back to the learning and development phase at any time.

A Mentoring process could also have the following typical steps (phases):

  1. Confirm developmental need Stage.
  2. Facilitate self-management of learning Stage.
  3. Support learning Stage.
  4. Assist in evaluation.

Mentoring and the Socratic Method

With the paradigm shift to effective mentoring, the use of the Socratic Method to assist in the development of critical thinking skills is evolving. An effective mentor guides their mentee to the answers rather than telling them what to do or what the answer is. It is a process that involves active listening skills and the framing of answers in the context of a question.


There are very few situations where you would not use the Socratic Method. You may find that your mentees become frustrated with you constantly asking questions, but you can provide them with the answer to their question by framing it in a question that now takes the answer and focuses on making the mentee think about the potential outcomes.

For example, “If we were to do XYZ what would the outcomes be?” Our future leaders of tomorrow want to be mentored not managed. The Socratic Method is a positive step in that direction.


Strengths of Mentoring. Benefits\

Mentoring whether formal or informal has personal and professional benefits. In most organizations the decision to do something is usually premised with the question, “what is the business value” and mentoring is no different. The decision to implement mentoring in an organization should be premised on the question of, “what business problem do we want to solve?” The best approach to take is to identify a business challenge or a personal challenge that you want to address and then explore how mentoring can assist.

For example having an aging work force is a great place to train your aging employees to become mentors. They can then assist in the knowledge transfer that needs to take place prior to their departure and we can also have a mentor work with the successor on their soft skills.
In situations where an individual has difficulties in communicating effective with co-workers or clients mentoring has been very successful in providing the tools to change that behavior. They key is to guide the employee to the answers rather than telling them. This is where training of the mentor is crucial.

  • Enables the long term patronage/development of an individual.
  • Demonstrates personal/corporate commitment.
  • High ROI (Return On Investment) in relation to attracting and maintaining talent.

Limitations of Mentoring. Disadvantages

As an effective mentor you need to understand what your limitations are with mentoring. As you gain more experience in this field you will be able to deal with challenges that you may not have tackled earlier in your mentoring career. The main thing to realize with mentoring is that you are not there to diagnose the mentee and you are not there to provide coaching. There are professionally trained people that can take on that responsibility. Your challenge is to know when to hand off to these people. A mentor cannot solve all the problems.

  • When perceived as being controlled by the a Head Office function or highly monitored, the process can become highly mechanical and false, thus losing its inherent value.
  • Can allow the reinforcement of 'face fitting', if mentors are able to cherry pick who they mentor.
  • Try telling your boss she is a lousy mentor!

Assumptions of Mentoring. Conditions

  • Mentoring is a hugely complex arena, of which this information scratches the surface.
  • By its own definition mentoring is a process rather then a model. As such models enable mentoring activity.
  • Mentoring is a complex activity, with the potential for great reward or devastation to a business and or individual. If this is being considered within a business context, utilize the help of professionals.

Book: David Clutterbuck - Everyone needs a mentor

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Mentoring Special Interest Group.

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Forum discussions about Mentoring. Below you can ask a question about this topic, share your experiences, report a new development, or explain something.

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Best Practices

The best, top-rated topics about Mentoring. Here you will find the most valuable ideas and practical suggestions.

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Information Sources

Various sources of information regarding Mentoring. Here you will find powerpoints, videos, news, etc. to use in your own lectures and workshops.

Introduction to Mentoring

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Compare with Mentoring: Coaching  |  Intervention Styles  |  Hagberg Model of Personal Power  |  Leadership Pipeline  |  Cultural Dimensions  |  Cultural Intelligence  |  Emotional Intelligence  |  4 Dimensions of Relational Work  |  Maslow Hierarchy of Needs  |  ERG Theory  |  Spiral Dynamics  |  Changing Organizational Cultures  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Whole Brain Model  |  Seven Habits  |  Seven Surprises  |  Johari Window  |  EPIC ADVISERS  |  Leadership Styles  |  Level 5 Leadership  |  Hagberg Model of Personal Power  |  Interim Management

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