Leading Inspiration: Q & A About Mentoring

Cover of "The Odyssey"

Q: I hear a lot about mentoring in the workplace. Could you tell me more about this?

A: Thanks for your question. Here are thoughts from http://bitly.com/UZqz7T

What is Mentoring?

Bozeman and Feeney (2007) define mentoring as “a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protege).”

It originated from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. In the poem, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, went to fight in the Trojan War and entrusted the care of his kingdom to Mentor, who served as the teacher of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

Mentoring is often thought of as the transfer of wisdom from a wise and trusted counselor, normally in a leadership position, who helps to guide a person’s career, normally in the upper echelons of the organization. The two most common terms used to describe the person being mentored are “mentee” and “protege,” while two lesser used terms are “apprentice” and “student.”

A mentor cares about his/her proteges and goes out of his/her way to see that they get the best possible chance to fulfill their career potential. It involves teaching, coaching and helping to build a high degree of confi-dence. But what brings out the full magic mentorship is some degree of affection or warm friendship…such as what an older brother might feel for his kid sister.

Why the Need for Mentoring?

Capital Analytics found a 1,000 percent ROI for Sun mentoring using their most conservative measures of job and salary grade improvement (Dickinson, Jankot & Gracon, 2009).

Mentoring has been shown to have a positive effect on one’s career. One study by Gerard Roche (1979) found that of the 63.5 percent of the 1,250 respondents who had a mentor (defined as “a person who took a personal interest in your career and who guided or sponsored you”) were on the average better paid, reached their positions faster, and were more satisfied with their work and careers than their non-mentor counterparts.

Kram (1986) discovered that mentoring facilitates the socialization of new hires into the organization, reduces turnover, minimizes mid-career adjustments, enhances transfer of knowledge and values, and facilitates the adjustment of retirement.


Who Should Be Mentored?

While most mentoring programs seemed to be aimed at the best and brightest, Delong & Vijayaraghavan (2003) reported that it makes more sense to go after the large middle base (B-players) since they make up the great majority of employees (80 percent) as opposed to the top 10 percent of star A-players and the bottom 10 percent of the incompetent (C-players): “Like all prizewinning supporting actors, B-players bring depth and stability to the companies they work for, slowly but surely improving both corporate performance and organizational resilience… They will never garner the most revenue or the biggest clients, but they also will be less likely to embarrass the company or flunk out…these players inevitably end up being the backbone of the organization.”

The authors also note that an organization’s long-term performance and survival depends far more on the contribution of their B-players. These steady performers counter balance the ambitions of the company’s high-performing visionaries whose strengths, when carried to an extreme, can lead to reckless or volatile behavior. Thus, B-players stabilize the actions of the A-players.

A Gartner report also noticed a phenomenon in that the best positive findings were in the areas of change in salary, promotion and retention. However, a major negative finding was (Dickinson, et al 2009): “…investing in a mentoring program for high performers does not yield as significant a return as might be assumed. Rather, the better investment for Sun would be to spend the money on lower performers to help them raise their level of performance.”

Types of Mentoring

Mentoring is often divided into two types (Buell, 2004):

Informal mentoring relationships develop on their own, such as when a person approaches a possible mentor and that person agrees to form a mentoring relationship.

Formal mentoring relationships refers to assigned relationships in which the organization oversees and guides the mentoring program in order to promote employee development.

Note that this does not mean it is black and white, rather it is more of a continuum with formal on one end and informal on the other end. For example, an organization may guide and oversee a mentoring program, in addition to providing learning opportunities to both the mentors and protégés, but may not assign the relationships.

Limitations on formal mentoring programs include the small number of mentoring relationships they can support and accommodate may lead to dissatisfaction with the relationship and negative feelings of those not involved with the program (DeSimone, Werner, Harris, 2002). As far as the mentor and protégé relationship, Chao, Walz and Gardner (1992) found that protégés in formal relationships received more career-related advice and had better career outcomes, while Tepper (1995) found no difference.


These two types of mentoring can further be divided into two forms:

Traditional mentoring in which there is a long-term relationship where a mentor guides the protégé’s career.

Special project mentoring in which a mentor helps to guide a protégé’s short-term project (normally lasting a few weeks to a few months).


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