The value of having a mentor

The terms mentoring and coaching can be used almost interchangeably in the workplace, but they’re actually different. Bob Little explains what mentoring is, what’s involved and ultimately what it can achieve.

Mentoring – so-called after the story from Greek mythology, when Ulysses entrusted his son Telemachus to the guidance of his friend Mentor – is a way of helping another person to become what they aspire to be. A mentor is someone who listens in a non-judgemental way and helps people learn and achieve their full potential. 

A mentor is likely to have subject matter expertise, and expertise in the client’s specialist field. Mentoring’s focus is on making progress – and this could last a lifetime. The learner drives the mentoring process, with the mentor helping the learner work out the answer they need. 

Family members, friends and colleagues can all be mentors to us throughout our lives. We can learn from them because they’ve ‘been there’ before us. This type of mentoring role tends to be informal and unpaid, whereas a coach tends to be hired in a more ‘professional’ arrangement.

Mentoring is a partnership, a confidential relationship, a positive developmental activity, and it should provide objective insight. Since it’s a confidential relationship – at least in a corporate context – a client’s line manager should not be their mentor.

On the other hand, mentoring isn’t a process that’s intended to undermine a line manager’s authority. It’s not about forming a secret society, nor is it judgemental, hierarchical or imposed. Indeed, where mentoring is concerned, the client is responsible for driving the learning, while the mentor is merely there to help.

There are two basic forms in mentoring, differing principally in name only. The US model calls the person who is being mentored the protégé, while the European school prefers the term, mentee.  

Traditional mentoring is a local, face-to-face activity but over the last 10 years or so, the practice of online, e-mentoring (for want of a better term) has grown. It may not work well for everyone, notably those who are wary of technology, but it can traverse the barriers of time and place. Online is obviously not the same as face-to-face, but it’s different – not better or worse – and delivering mentoring online may be the only viable option. 

It’s been said that a good teacher teaches, the superior teacher demonstrates and the great teacher inspires. The same is true of a mentor. The key is to inspire the learner – whether the interaction occurs face-to-face, one-to-one, in a classroom or remotely over thousands of miles.

Mentoring A to Z

A key to mentoring success is to use all the tools that are to hand. The more elements that can be used, the more effective the online mentoring experience could become. This quick guide to mentoring may help.

What mentoring involves:

The mentor and client get to know each other.  They share values, agree on roles and responsibilities, negotiate boundaries and set the ground rules.

2. Getting established
They establish a safe, secure and friendly environment. They agree objectives and targets, and develop an action plan. The mentor provides the necessary support. Then, both mentor and client reflect on what the client has learned.

3. Maturing the relationship
This is the most productive stage in the mentoring process. The client gains greater independence. The relationship now provides the client with challenges, stimulation, enhanced learning and deeper reflection.

4. Termination
The termination phase is key to the whole exercise, yet this is rarely acknowledged. At this stage, the mentor no longer meets the client’s current needs and the partnership between mentor and client needs to evaluated. Both mentor and client must acknowledge the need to move on. Moreover, they need to manage the ending of the relationship and engage in a formal closure. It’s important to remember that not only does the mentoring process need a formal closure but also that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with moving on.

Benefits for organisations:

A key value of mentoring is that it’s a means of supporting succession planning. Done well, mentoring:

  • Produces a motivated workforce with increasing skills
  • Helps to improve social networking and communication within an organisation
  • Provides a cost-effective personalised development programme
  • Maximises human potential.

Benefits for mentors:

  • Increased motivation and a sense of achievement
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Mentors develop their interpersonal skills
  • Mentors gain a sense of personal satisfaction as well as carry out some self-development
  • Mentors have an opportunity to enhance their own role and skills

Benefits for clients:

  • Finding a positive role model
  • Taking increased responsibility for their own learning and training
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Increased motivation and achievement
  • Engaging in personal growth and development
  • Enhancing existing skills and learning new ones



About Bob Little

Bob Little is a communications professional (a writer, editor, commentator, speaker and broadcaster) specialising in the field of corporate L&D, who works internationally.


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