What do we mean by mentoring?

by Prof David Clutterbuck

Extract from Making the Most of Developmental Mentoring

The term Mentor has its origins in Greek mythology, but there are parallel stories in many cultures. In the Odyssey, King Odysseus is guided in his long journey home to Ithaca by Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Athena also guides Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, when he sets out to find his father, and takes the guise of an old courtier, Mentor. Some of the interesting aspects of this story are that:
• The original mentor was a woman (the old man Mentor was spectacularly useless!)
• Athena also had manifestations that related to high levels of challenge (she was the goddess of martial arts) and nurturing – two opposite behaviours that together drive the mentoring relationship
• Athena helped Odysseus and Telemachus on journeys they chose to make – she didn’t expect them to follow her path or defer to her experience.

Over the centuries, mentoring has been associated with apprenticeships and other forms of learning between generations. In the early 1980s, a small number of companies in the US decided to formalise the informal mentoring that was happening in their organizations. In this model, a powerful and experienced person (usually in business, the professions or higher education) adopted someone much younger, who was just starting out their career in the same discipline or organization. The attraction of the younger person was, to a greater or lesser extent, bound up with mentors recognising themselves 20 or more years earlier. The more junior partner, the protégé (literally, someone protected) was attracted by the mentor’s experience, wider perspectives, connections and power to influence their career. Definitions at the time talk of “overseeing the career of a young man”.

This form of mentoring has come to be known as sponsorship mentoring. One of its key characteristics is that the learning is mostly one way. Another is that mentors tend to expect some degree of personal loyalty from the mentee. It is also common for long-term sponsorship mentoring relationships to bust up spectacularly, if the mentor does not encourage the protégé to outgrow them.

Supported or structured mentoring was rapidly imported into Europe, where it had a mixed reception. In France, for example, there was already a well-entrenched and powerful system of elite informal relationships between old and young graduates of the Grands Lycees. In the UK, Eire, Holland and Scandinavia, sponsorship mentoring simply didn’t fit cultures, where the emphasis was on helping people manage their own careers. In those countries, a very different model of mentoring emerged – one based on a greater level of two-way learning and on helping the more junior partner (called a mentee) with the quality of their thinking about issues important to them. This model is usually called developmental mentoring.

Both models of mentoring can be seen around the world, both in their “pure” form and in various combinations. Because the expectations of mentors and mentees can be very different, it is important in any mentoring relationship to define what model of mentoring is being applied.

A “mentoring” story from East Africa
A young boy’s father is dying. He tells his son: “Under the big rock outside the kraal is everything you will need to become a great warrior.” Encouraged by his mother, every day the child attempts to move the rock. Although he pushes with all his strength, it does not budge. Eventually, at the age of 16, he feels a small amount of give. Then at 18, he rolls the rock away and finds underneath it a sword and shield. “How will this make me a great warrior?” he asks, disappointed. “Just look at your muscles,” says his mother…

Other common forms of mentoring are peer mentoring (where there is no hierarchical difference between the parties, simply a difference in experiences) and reverse mentoring (where the mentor is hierarchically more junior than the mentee). Reverse mentoring occurs particularly in technical areas (many executives have a junior IT mentor) and in support of diversity programmes. For example, in the UK Cabinet Office relatively junior black and minority ethnic mentors help leaders gain insights into diversity issues, through open dialogue and offering different perspectives.

Some definitions of developmental mentoring

  • Off-line (i.e. not in a boss-subordinate relationship) help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking (Clutterbuck, D, 1985, Everyone needs a mentor, CIPD, Wimbledon)
  • Helping someone with the quality of their thinking about issues important to them (Clutterbuck & Megginson)
  • Mentoring is a helping relationship based on an exchange of knowledge, experience and goodwill. Mentors help someone less experienced gain confidence, clearer purpose, insight, and wisdom. In developmental mentoring, the mentor, too, is changed by the relationship.
  • Mentoring is a strategic development activity that supports the organization’s vision, goals and values and the participants’ needs and wishes (Kirsten Poulsen, The Mentor+ Guide, KMP+ Forlag, Copenhagen)

What’s the difference between coaching and mentoring?

There is a lot of vested interest by people, who promote particular services, to claim the moral high ground for whatever they do. So it is easy to find exactly the opposite  distinctions being claimed for both coaching and mentoring with equal forcefulness. The reality is a lot more complex. Just as there is more than one model of mentoring, so there are at least two very different models of coaching. The oldest and most widespread, sometimes called traditional coaching is, like sponsorship mentoring, relatively directive – the coach is in charge and is typically either the person, who sets targets and standards, or their representative. Much sports coaching fits this model, for example. In traditional coaching, the coach tells the coachee what to do, observes them and gives feedback on how they perform. Effective traditional coaches also help people experiment, reflect and develop the skills of self-feedback.

More recent is developmental coaching, which works on the learner’s own agenda and – at its most powerful – helps the learner have the conversation they need to have with themselves. One of the many sources, on which developmental coaching draws, is developmental mentoring.

So what are the similarities and differences between developmental coaching and developmental mentoring? As the table below shows, the differences are more of degree and nuance than absolutes. As a mentor, you may from time to time find yourself being drawn into what you may think of as developmental coaching. The mind frame and approach of developmental coaching and developmental mentoring are so similar that you may not even notice the transition. A move from developmental mentoring to sponsorship mentoring or to traditional coaching may be more problematic, as it may cut across organizational policy and may reduce the mentee’s level of openness and honesty in your conversations. (People tend to be less forthright about their weaknesses, to people, who have influence over their careers.)

  • Differences
  • Focus on the quality of the learner’s thinking

    Coach/mentor uses their experience to craft powerful questions

    Advice-giving is permissible, but not as a first resort and only in specific circumstances (A common complaint about ineffective coaches is their over-rigid adherence to never giving advice.)

    Much of the learning occurs in the reflections of the coachee/mentee between or long after sessions

    Coach and mentor both have a duty of care towards the coachee/ mentee
  • Differences
  • Mentors more likely to make introductions, help develop networks

    Mentors more likely to help explain politics of an organization or profession

    Coaches (in the workplace context of line manager to direct report) more likely to give feedback

    Coaching tends to be a short- or medium-term assignment or activity focused on performance in a defined field

    Mentoring tends to be a medium- to long-term relationship focused on career or more holistic, less welldefined issues
    Coaching more often a paid arrangement