Mentorship refers to a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The receiver of mentorship was traditionally referred to as a protégé or apprentice. Today, the term "mentee" is gaining acceptance and becoming widely used.

There are several definitions of mentoring. Foremost, mentoring involves communication and is relationship based. In the organizational setting, mentoring can take many forms. The formal definition that best describes mentoring is as follows:

"Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé or mentee)." (Bozeman, Feeney, 2007)

Organizations have started to see the value of mentoring for enhancing work life, performance, commitment and job satisfaction. When mentoring is implemented successfully, there are measurable improvements in employee performance, retention, employee commitment to the organization, knowledge sharing, leadership growth and succession planning.

A mentor is a person who gives another person the benefit of his or her years of experience and/or education. This experience is shared in such a way that the mentor helps to develop a mentee's skills and abilities, benefiting the mentee and the organization.

A good mentoring relationship is identified by the willingness and capability of both parties to ask questions, challenge assumptions and disagree. It’s important to note that there's no one way to mentor. Every mentoring relationship is as unique as the individuals involved.

The mentor is far less likely to have a direct-line relationship with the mentee, and in a mentoring relationship this distance is desirable. Mentoring is rarely a critical part of an individual’s job role, but rather an extra element that rewards the mentor with fresh thinking as well as the opportunity to transfer knowledge and experience to a less experienced colleague, peer or employee.

The Difference between Mentoring and Coaching

Coaching is not the same as mentoring. Mentoring is concerned with the development of the whole person and is driven by the person’s own work/life goals. It is usually unstructured and informal. Mentors focus on the person (the mentee), that person’s career, and support for individual growth and maturity.

Coaching is much more about achieving specific objectives in a particular way. Coaching also is more formal and more structured, usually around a coaching process or methodology. Typically, coaching is job focused and performance oriented.

The Mentoring Process is a Two-way Street with Mutual Responsibilities

For mentoring to be successful, the mentor and mentee must collaborate on the process. The first meeting should be a face-to-face meeting where the following criteria are determined:

  • The goals for the mentee
  • The scope of responsibilities each person is assuming
  • Time commitments agreed to by both parties
  • Logistics of the process (how, when and where meetings and communications will take place)
  • Agreement on the definition of confidential information and how that information will be addressed throughout the process
  • Topics or issues that are outside of the mentoring boundaries
  • The process for dealing with conflicts and/or obstacles that may arise during the mentoring process
  • How and when to end the relationship

Effective Mentoring

The following guidelines describe an effective mentoring relationship

  • The mentee has no direct-line reporting to the mentor. This fosters trust, and the mentee feels more comfortable in sharing uncertainties about his or her abilities, creating free-flowing, open communication.
  • The mentor/mentee relationship is mutually satisfying. The mentor gets the satisfaction of watching someone grow who values his or her insights. The mentee gains a feeling of being valued, receiving beneficial direction and attention from someone who he or she respects and admires.
  • The intensity of the relationship is matched. It is taking up actual and mental time in proportions with which both people are comfortable. This time commitment is flexible as the mentee's needs change. Sometimes several meetings are necessary during a very challenging period, then none for months.
  • At any time, either party can stop the relationship and the mentoring process. There is no obligation for continuance.
  • An effective mentor gives wise counsel, and the mentee feels comfortable speaking on issues that may be sensitive. Once this trust is developed, the mentor can give advice or assist with tough recommendations.
  • The mentor is not mentoring two people at the same time who have a close working relationship. Discretion and confidentiality are paramount. The rules of engagement are stated up front with an agreement between the mentor and the mentee on who should be aware of the mentoring relationship.
  • The obligation for continuing is two-sided. When the mentor feels he or she has value to add and the mentee is getting something from the relationship, the mentoring may go on indefinitely, or either side can end it without justification.
  • Mentoring programs are about guidance and facilitation rather than formal training.

How Mentoring Relationships Go Wrong

There are several reasons that a mentoring relationship may fail. Since a successful mentoring relationship is built on trust and the mutual commitment for both parties to hold up their end of the agreement, it is not surprising that the circumstances for failed mentoring are directly related to the failure in the relationship between the mentor and the mentee.

The following is an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal report in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management Review dated Monday, May 24, 2010.

  • Conflict in values: This type of conflict creates a lack of trust or rapport between the two parties. If neither the mentor nor the mentee is able to bend or compromise, they may find themselves unable to work together effectively.
  • Neglect of the mentee: If the mentor does not show an active interest in the mentee and act in positive ways to advance his or her career, this neglect can erode the mentee’s trust and faith in the mentor. Most mentors go into the relationship sincerely intending to give the mentee what he or she needs to succeed. It may be that the mentor’s schedule interferes with his or her availability, or the mentor may be experiencing excessive challenges with his or her own career, creating the feeling of neglect and frustration on the part of the mentee.
  • Mentors who manipulate the mentee: Mentee manipulation is most common when the mentor is the mentee’s direct supervisor or an upper supervisor from the same department. Manipulation comes in three forms:
    • Tyranny – This form of management by intimidation is a complaint that is often heard from mentees. For example, a mentor may threaten to demote a mentee unless he or she pulls an all-nighter to fix a problem created by the mentor.
    • Inappropriate Delegation – This includes requiring the mentee to do work that the mentor should be doing or withholding assignments that are coveted by the mentee and that would promote the mentee’s growth and development.
    • Politicking – This involves malicious acts like sabotage and taking undue credit with the intention of harming the mentee’s reputation, usually with the intention of making the mentor look good.
  • Mentees who manipulate the mentor: Although mentees have fewer resources at their disposal, mentor manipulation is not unusual. For example, the mentee may be attributing failures to the mentor and success to himself or herself in order to look good to senior management. This form of manipulation allows the mentee to use the mentor to forward his or her own advancement at the expense of the mentor.
  • Sabotage against mentors: When a mentee attempts to damage the career of the mentor, it is often revenge motivated. The mentee may be trying to retaliate for being passed over for promotion, for example. The mentee may blame the mentor for failure to achieve his or her goals. At times, the sabotage may be unintentional, e.g., the mentor may have stepped up to recommend the mentee for a higher or more responsible position. If the mentee fails, this may reflect poorly on the mentor.
  • Submissive mentees: This is usually a case where the mentee relies too heavily on the mentor, and the mentee’s abilities for independent thinking and growth are stifled. This situation also may cause the mentor to inadvertently take control in an effort to ensure the success of the mentee. In either case, the mentee’s ability to grow and prosper can be hindered.

So, how do you avoid the pitfalls of bad mentoring relationships?

  1. Provide support and training for mentors and mentees: Whether the company has a formal or informal mentoring program, mentors should go through a training program prior to taking on mentoring responsibilities. Support must be provided where the mentor or mentee can seek advice or assistance if either party feels that the relationship is not progressing in a positive way.
  2. Recruit right-fit mentors: People who volunteer to be a mentor are more likely to put in the time and effort and have the right skills for mentoring. Mandating that a person take on a mentoring role is a sure way to create failure.
  3. Match the mentor with the mentee: Make sure that the mentor and the mentee have things in common and have shared values, creating mentoring relationships that are more likely to succeed.
  4. Provide feedback: Mentors can share appraisals and progress with the mentee’s supervisor, who has a vested interest in the mentee’s progress and development. Someone from human resources also should be in the loop in the event that problems arise.
  5. Prepare for the end: To avoid hurt feelings, everyone should be prepared to understand that mentoring eventually ends. When the mentor has shared all he or she can share and/or the mentee has learned all he or she can from this mentor, it is time to end the mentorship. Preparing in advance will help to avoid hurt feelings when the time comes.

If you are considering seeking out a mentor, here are seven tips for maximizing your mentoring experience:

  • Know your goals.
  • Choose the best mentor to meet your goals.
  • Begin your mentoring relationship by discussing mutual goals and expectations.
  • Practice the highest standards of professionalism.
  • Learn to accept and give feedback.
  • Practice good communication.
  • Recognize that your success is your responsibility.

If you are considering becoming a mentor, below are some of the benefits of mentoring:

  • Learning new things about yourself: The self-reflection that can result from a mentoring relationship can be a powerful growth experience, giving you new and revealing insights about yourself, your skills and your experience.
  • Satisfaction of passing on knowledge
  • Contributing to the success of your organization by developing others
  • Acquiring new knowledge: Often, the mentor also learns new skills and ideas from his or her mentee.
  • Expanding your networking contacts
  • Building confidence
  • Assists you in staying current with issues and developments in the next generation of professionals and within your company

In today’s business environment, everyone has more work to perform, more responsibilities and more stress. Given this, you may ask yourself, "Why would I want to create additional time commitments on my schedule to become a mentor?" The simple answer is that mentors, through the process of mentoring, learn to be stronger leaders by developing exceptional interpersonal skills. Through the mentoring relationship, mentors often discover new resources in the form of innovative and creative ideas that are presented during the mentoring learning process and improved human resources through the development of promising new talent.