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Mentoring in Practice

Mentoring in Practice

“Mentoring” has become a much discussed concept in the modern workplace. However, a clear and shared meaning of the term has not always existed about what it is and how mentoring actually takes place in practice. In this article we will therefore aim to address this issue.

Mentoring in Theory

The word “mentor” comes to us from ancient Greek mythology. When the king Odysseus went off to fight in the Trojan Wars he asked Mentor to look after his household and family. While he was away, Mentor ran the household, making sure that everyone was well-provided for. He also raised and taught Odysseus’ son Telemachus. After the war, Odysseus tried for ten years to get back to his home. Eventually the father and his son were reunited after Telemachus and the goddess Athena (who had turned herself into Mentor) went in search of him.

Today, the word mentor has come to mean “friend”, “trusted adviser”, “helper”, “protector” and “wise counselor”. Some elements of this have translated directly to modern organizations, but they have also added their own “flavor” to the term.

Mentors today aim to make available insight, challenge, knowledge, encouragement, wisdom, support and a different perspective, which may be helpful to the mentee. Anyone can be a mentor, especially if they are able to get a little insight and training around some of the skills needed for a successful mentoring relationship.

Mentoring can happen casually and almost accidentally or it can happen formally in a workplace. Casually or informally, many of us have experienced a mentoring relationship in our day-to-day lives. It might have happened originally while we were at school or through our sporting or social contacts. In addition, many of us, at some time, may well have mentored someone else.

More formally, organizations use mentoring to develop employees at different stages in their careers. Some “new” people are inducted using a mentoring approach. Some people are “fast tracked” by pairing them up with a mentor who can stretch, challenge and “protect” them. Chief executives and senior managers seek mentors from outside their industry to help them stay in front of the pack. And in a few instances, large staff-development programs are run using mentoring as a core activity. So, mentoring is widely used in the working world but in many different ways or with several variations on the theme.

Mentoring in Practice

As organizations have changed from tall, relatively stable hierarchies where people worked their way “up the ladder” over many years, to being flatter, fast-responding and more competitive, so too has the idea of mentoring in organizations changed.

In the old style organization mentoring was usually something which involved someone much higher up the organizational ladder who was very much seen to be a wise expert in their field, taking someone who was “wet behind the ears”, but showed promise, “under their wing”. The person being mentored was given instruction, opportunities to “strut their stuff” and some degree of protection as their career progressed. Often they were being groomed to be promoted or even, in a few cases, to take the place of the person who was mentoring them.

These days mentoring is often a very different process in which the mentor and the mentee work together in a partnership – their aim isn’t usually to help the mentee to necessarily climb the corporate ladder, but rather to empower the mentee so that he or she can learn and develop his/her abilities to respond to the changing challenges of the current job and perhaps a job to which he or she may aspire.

Good mentoring in the modern sense then can significantly develop individual capability and overall motivation and so improve organizational capability, responsiveness to change and bottom-line productivity. Mentoring helps people to learn on the job by identifying and working on areas of their development which are holding their performance back or could be developed even further.

For effective mentoring to take place, a relationship needs to be established and for most of us, most of the time, this means that it needs to happen over an extended period. Sometimes people will talk about short-term mentoring but what they are describing is really coaching – an activity which can take place over a short or a long period of time. And if they are talking about fixing a performance or other problem they really mean counseling.

Mentoring in the modern workplace should be practiced in a way of helping people to develop their potential both in their job and as people. A mentor provides much more than just coaching with “technical” help on how to develop skills related to job performance or how to “fix” problems which might be holding the mentee back. In the old sense of the term, they are a “friend” or “buddy”, but they also have to be prepared to challenge their mentee when necessary and ensure that they don’t avoid the “hard stuff” when it comes to personal issues. In some circumstances a mentor might take a very active approach in the relationship (seeking out the mentee rather than waiting to be contacted). Mentors can inform, confront, support, set boundaries, counsel and motivate. Perhaps, most importantly, whatever the mentor does, they do it in partnership with their mentee.


Mentoring has evolved to become an important one-to-one partnering relationship between two individuals in an organization. While such a mentor was often much more experienced and very much more senior in the past (and perhaps a rather more passive voice or independent and neutral adviser), in modern times a mentor may be a particularly experienced peer in a different team who works with a mentee to help him or her in a variety of ways to deal with an array of workplace challenges being faced.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. Adam KuesterOctober 18, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Interesting article, Jon.
    I have been having issues with team members not growing and developing into their roles in my business. I’ve been trying to figure out what I’ve been doing wrong and have worked to improve how the team gets feedback—both positive and negative. I want to play off of employee strengths and try to get each of them to realize where investment in new skills or practices could increase their value to the business and help them move up in our organization.
    But especially as my organization gets more and more complex, I feel like mentoring gets even more difficult. I recently took a course on developing soft skills for IT using a training method in business architecture from the Business Architecture Center of Excellence. I would recommend to anyone in tech looking to understand how to simplify complexity in the workplace. The course also reviewed how softer skills—interpersonal skills—are as important (if not more important) than having technical acumen. I feel like with over 50 employees now, I have to figure out how the organization structure can help facilitate mentoring.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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