This post has been updated on July 8, 2020.
Mentoring is a big thing in today’s business world but very few people know where and how it all started. Mentor is actually a Greek mythical character. He was a loyal friend and adviser to Odysseus, king of Ithaca. Mentor helped raise Odysseus' son, Telemachus, while Odysseus was away fighting the Trojan War. Mentor became Telemachus' teacher, coach, counselor, and protector, building a relationship based on affection and trust. Mentor was almost like a second father to Telemachus and later on proved that at times, Athena, the goddess of wisdom herself, took the form of this trusted advisor in order to lead the young leader on the right path.
A real-life modern-day mentor is, as the good old Merriam Webster dictionary puts it, “a trusted counselor or guide”. Such a person could do wonders for one’s professional development and as such many organizations have started to recognize this and have established programs to aid younger employees to get in touch and receive guidance from more experienced peers.
Mentoring is not coaching
It is important not to confuse mentoring with coaching. These two terms are often considered synonyms and though they do hold some similarity – both are practices that target personal or professional development – they ultimately are different, separate things.
Mentoring requires a long term relationship where the primary goal is to support the growth of the mentee. The mentor is supposed to advise, teach, and support without asking for specific behavioral changes or prescribing a set course of action. If I may use another “oddysseic” comparison, from the timeless (and endless) Star Wars franchise, a mentor is more like Yoda and less like Padmé.
Coaching, on the other hand, is usually a short-term affair, focused either on building or eliminating specific behaviors. A coach gives advice and feedback and knows precisely when his work is done.
Both mentoring and coaching are very valuable in giving developmental support, but one offers high-level guidance for long-term development and the other focuses on immediate and very specific improvement.
Types of mentoring
Now that we have established the differences between coaching and mentoring, let’s take a look of what mentoring means in today’s business world. The Washington University of Saint Luis came up with an academic classification of this practice:
- Formal mentoring
- Structured programs are set up to match mentors and trainees
- Formats vary by program
- Provides accountability based on formal contracts between mentor and trainee
- Natural mentoring
- Initiated by mentor – one person (usually senior) reaching out to another
- Implicit – usually people with much in common
- Peer mentoring
- Individuals at the same level providing skill training
- Individuals in similar positions (e. g., have small children) providing support, empathy, and advice
- Individuals in similar stage of career mentoring on options and career goals
- Situational mentoring
- Mentoring for a specific purpose/skill
- Common at all stages of the career
- Supervisory mentoring
- Advisor as mentor and direct supervisor
- Not all supervisors are comfortable also being a mentor
- Possibility of conflict of interest
- Trainee initiated mentoring
- Begins with an interaction with a chosen mentor – it may develop into a mentoring relationship: build bridges
Types of mentoring from a different perspective
While this taxonomy makes perfect sense, it doesn’t do much for L&D professionals who mainly work with formal mentoring and have to set up the programs in such a way as to prove beneficial to all involved. So here’s a break-down of the business-friendly versions:
This is the most common mentoring mode as it pairs one mentor with one mentee. It allows for the two to develop a personal relationship in which the mentor is able to provide individual guidance and support to the mentee. This type of mentoring also requires minimal involvement from the HR department as the schedules are easily agreed between the interested parties.
Resource-based mentoring is fairly similar to one-on-one mentoring. The most important difference is that mentors and mentees are not interviewed and matched by the person in charge of the program. In this version mentors agree to have their names added to a list that mentees are able to choose from. The fact that the person requiring advice and support is initiating the interaction guarantees their engagement in the program but since specialized supervision is not involved in the process there is the risk of a mismatched mentor-mentee pairing.
As the name says, group mentoring requires a mentor to work with several mentees at the same time. The group has regular meetings to discuss certain topics. This is a mix of senior and peer mentoring as everybody gives opinions and shares experience. However, as is often the case with groups, it proves rather difficult to schedule meetings that accommodate everybody. Also, the personal relationship is lost so many organizations choose to combine this type with one to one mentoring – setting up individual meetings between the mentor and each mentee in the group.
This version combines mentoring with a specific training program. A mentor is assigned to a mentee in order to help him develop skills and competencies that are also covered in the courses the mentee is enrolled in. Training-based mentoring is however rather limited (and a bit contradicting the classical definition of mentoring) as its focus is the subjects being taught and not the overall development of the mentee.
What this model ensures is the creation of a mentoring culture within the organization. Executives who have obviously reached a high level of success and expertise get to share their knowledge and experience making sure that all they know does not leave the company when they retire.
Executive mentoring works best one to one, especially in the cases when the mentor is actually grooming the mentee to take over.
Regardless of what type fits best with your organization, developing a mentoring culture brings tremendous benefits both in the short and long run.