Alternative Forms for Mentoring

by Prof David Clutterbuck

The most common perception of mentoring is from someone more senior to someone more junior. The more senior person is assumed to have greater experience and a broader perspective on the organization or profession, which they can use to help the more junior partner better understand the context of choices they need to make.

However, because developmental mentoring is a relationship of mutual learning, there is considerable scope for other forms. Because the mentor’s power and authority are not relevant to developmental mentoring, the hierarchical difference also becomes less important. So mentors can be more junior than mentees (this is usually called reverse or upward mentoring), or at the same level. Or mentor and mentee can be peers at the same level, who bring different experiences and knowledge to the relationship.

In addition, while mentoring is usually seen as a relatively long-term, one-to-one relationship, there are lots of examples of different forms, including group mentoring, speed mentoring, network mentoring and cascade mentoring. All of these potentially have their place in an organization’s portfolio.

Peer mentoring is a professional exchange, where both parties support each other in personal growth and achievement. Peer mentoring relationships typically work better when one or both parties has had prior experience of more traditional mentoring. Research shows that trust and high quality of insight are easier to achieve within peer mentoring than in hierarchical mentoring. Most peer mentoring occurs informally, but organizations can encourage relationships to form by creating a data-base, with profiles containing:

  • Experience to offer a peer mentor
  • Experience wanted in a peer mentor
  • Some personal background
  • Contact details
  • Other relevant data, such as location or language

Keys to making peer mentoring work include:

  • Having enough difference between you to provide substantial co-learning opportunities
  • Contracting for a high level of honesty and self-disclosure
  • Being available for co-support in between sessions
  • Sharing networks
  • Reviewing your learning together every few months

Reverse mentoring has evolved in response to two organizational needs:

  • Changing cultures to make them more diversity-friendly, by educating leaders about diversity issues
  • Helping leaders catch up with technology or areas of specialist knowledge

For the junior person acting as mentor, the relationship provides opportunities to improve their visibility to leaders, and to gain insights into how leaders think. For the senior mentee, diversity oriented reverse mentoring provides a safe space to explore their own assumptions and concerns and to develop greater comfort in having meaningful conversations with someone different.

Some of the issues to be aware of in reverse mentoring are:

  • Managing the power distance – although the more senior person is intended to be the main learner in the relationship, it can be hard for them not to exercise their authority. And the junior person in the role of mentor may feel less able to challenge somebody more powerful. Reverse mentoring programmes often include in their training specific elements on how to overcome these instincts and ensure an openness and equality of conversation.
  • Letting the focus of the mentoring conversations become too narrow. It often happens that the reverse mentor feels constrained to stay with the boundaries of the original topic. It is important that mentor and mentee build sufficient rapport and trust to address other issues as they arise.
  • Reverse mentoring is more likely than other forms of coaching to result in constructive challenge to company policy. The leader/mentee needs to be able to absorb and reflect on this challenge and, if appropriate, explore the issues raised with leader colleagues.

Group mentoring typically occurs when there are not enough mentors to meet the demand from mentees. It works best when:

  • The group is between 3 and 8 mentees in size (large enough to explore different viewpoints but small enough to ensure that all mentees have “air time”)
  • The mentor has a reasonable level of group facilitation skills (this can be acquired as part of training for the group mentor role)
  • The group meets on a regular basis
  • Mentees provide peer support and learning
  • Mentees work together between meetings, to agree a common agenda for each meeting with the mentor
  • There are opportunities for mentees individually to arrange one-to-one sessions with the mentor, about issues, which are personal to them and not shared by the group generally.

Both mentors and mentees require additional training above and beyond standard mentoring training, to cover these requirements.

Shadow Boards are a particular type of group mentoring. Typically, junior managers in an organization are selected to form a Shadow Board. They receive the same papers as the real Board or leadership team, a few days ahead. They meet to discuss these papers, under the chairmanship/ mentorship of a member of the real Board/top team. (In some cases, the same person acts as mentor; in others, the role rotates amongst leaders, to give them all an opportunity to work with the Shadow Board.)

The aims of the Shadow Board are to:

  • Expose junior managers to more strategic thinking and what it means to be a leader
  • Expose leaders to the realities of how people lower in the organization perceive planned changes

A side benefit is that the Shadow Board often become ambassadors for the leadership team and for important policy decisions.

Again, both mentors and mentees need additional training for their roles.

Speed mentoring is a method of providing rapid, focused access to knowledge and experience. Typically, speed coaching involves bringing a group of mentors together with a group of learners, who have specific needs. Each pair work together for a defined period (up to 15 minutes) before one of them moves on to a new partner.

This approach to mentoring tends to be shallower and more advice-heavy than normal mentoring. However, it has a role to play in, for example, helping people explore a variety of different career options or in gathering multiple perspectives on one issue.

Network mentoring describes a growing trend for people to have more than one mentor at a time. For example, they may work with one mentor on long-term career issues and with others over shorter periods on transferring specific skills and knowledge. A practical way to initiate this is for mentors in a formal programme to encourage and support their mentees in creating and developing such networks.

Cascade mentoring is based on the principle that mentees can be more effective, if they experience mentoring from the mentor’s perspective. So, for example, young graduate recruits being mentored by a junior of middle manager would be encouraged to become a mentor to someone in the community. The experience typically helps them better appreciate their own mentor’s role and gain clarity about how they can help the mentor help them.