by Helen Moulsley

Mentoring – what it’s all about

Mentoring is where one person (the mentor) works with someone usually less experienced (the mentee), to transfer knowledge and experience which has been accrued by the mentor usually over many years. The mentee therefore benefits from the experience of the ‘wise old bird’.

The object of the mentoring will often be to pass on professional expertise, and this may be job or profession specific. Mentoring can really pay dividends when the mentor teaches the mentee ‘how things are done around here’ – in other words, the organisation’s formal and informal culture.

Some definitions

Homer’s Odyssey is probably the source of the expression ‘mentor’. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, trusted the care of his household, and of his son Telemachus, to the care of Mentor, who was Telemachus’ teacher. The word mentor has come to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person. Below are some definitions that apply in organisations.

  • A mentor sponsors an individual and offers advice based on professional expertise.
  • A guide, a wise and faithful counsellor – this is usually where the mentor has accumulated years of professional and managerial expertise in the field or profession of the aspiring mentee.
  • The pairing of a senior manager with a junior colleague, not in a line relationship. The senior manager acts as advisor and guide to enable the junior colleague to understand the culture of the organisation and to develop their career.
  • Off-line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking. This enables an individual to follow in the path of an older and wiser colleague, who can pass on knowledge and experience, as well as opening doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities.

Arguably, the modern guru on mentoring is Dave Clutterbuck. He draws together a number of definitions of mentoring in his book, Everyone Needs a Mentor. He particularly highlights the developmental element of mentoring, by which we mean helping the individual in their personal and career development.

He uses the word ‘empowering’ to capture the concept of the individual moving towards identifying solutions and steps themselves, rather than being told or directed to the answer by the individual.