What is Mentoring?

Mentoring has a long and ancient history. It is based on a story in Greek mythology. When Odysseus went to the Trojan War, he appointed his good friend Mentor as a role model, guardian and adviser to his son Telemachus. Later in the Odyssey, the goddess Athena, disguised as Mentor (Mentes), becomes more actively involved in the young man’s life, encouraging him to seek his father, introducing him to the network of heroes and fighting beside him and Odysseus to restore order (Powell in NAWE 2000 has an interesting feminist analysis of this).

From these origins, mentoring is used to refer to a relationship in which an older more experienced person acts as a guide or a model for a less experienced colleague.

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Mentoring is part of all our lives. We learn and take advice from parents, teachers, older friends. Mentoring has been significant for many successful people in all walks of life. But in recent years mentoring has emerged in many organisations as a formal mechanism to assist employees achieve their full potential. (McKenzie 1995, NAWE 2000)

Mentoring relationships can be dyadic (or one-to-one) or can relate to a Socratic model (one mentor with a group of mentees) or can take place within a peer group.

A definition of mentoring today is provided by Shea, “Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy and personal know-how in assisting the growth and ability of another person” (1997, p.3).

Essentially all mentoring relationships feature two main roles: the mentor and the mentee. Many other different terms can be used for these two roles, but these have become widely accepted.

A mentor is more experienced, and often in a higher position in an organisation. The mentor is one who is explicitly willing to assist others in developing their career.

A mentee is a term used for someone who is less experienced and seeking guidance in career development. The mentee must keep in touch with the mentor and feel free to speak openly, ask for guidance, discuss the relationship and seek advice on how to approach problems.

The mentor’s role is that of a trusted adviser and supportive guide, encouraging the mentee in effective strategies for accomplishing career objectives. A mentor may also act as a teacher or tutor, helping the mentee learn organisational and professional skills and providing insights about how to ‘decode’ the corporate culture. At times, the mentor may also perform the role of supporter, providing insights from experience to help the mentee manage difficult situations. An effective mentor keeps in touch with the mentee, suggests appropriate resources and encourages the mentee to establish or seek out professional or supportive networks.

Both mentor and mentee must trust and respect each other. The relationship must be based on clear principles and shared values.

While informal mentoring has long been a feature of many work environments, formal mentoring has only recently emerged as a staff development strategy. What are the reasons for this?

Work in general has become more complex, with more rapid turnover of staff in many organisations, so that mentoring is required. Perhaps more importantly, the hitherto unrecognised trajectories of power within workplaces have been identified, and attention drawn to those who through gender, race or other reasons may not have equal access to senior positions.

Formal mentoring occurs when an institution takes a decision to implement a scheme of mentoring which will have formal recognition within the institution even if there are no tangible rewards for being involved as a mentor. Formal mentoring has emerged when there is executive commitment for it and champions ready to argue for such a scheme.

A formal mentoring program extends the mentoring experience to those who may not readily find informal mentors or who would not otherwise consider it.

Formal mentoring can lead to a more supportive work environment. Interestingly formal mentoring may also lead to more effective informal mentoring. If the formal experience has been good for mentee and mentor and they have learned skills, they are more likely to mentor other people. In this way, lessons learnt from one program can extend to the whole organisation.

Many higher education institutions now organise more structured mentoring schemes, to ensure that all members of the institution have equal opportunity to participate.

Formal mentoring schemes have a clear rationale; measurable goals and outcomes; mechanisms for assessment and selection of both mentors and mentees in place and accountability, since results are monitored.

The most significant variable to any mentoring scheme is the quality of the relationship with the mentor.

Source: Women & Mentoring in Higher Education, C Chesterman