What Is Mentoring Anyway?

There are many definitions of mentoring, not one accepted definition. It used to be considered that mentoring was about tutelage by a more senior person. That came from the derivation of the term mentoring being based on Greek mythology. It is said that when the King went to war, he asked his friend Mentor to guide and develop his son Telemachus who would be the next King. So it prevailed that the term mentoring came to be known as being developed for a role by a wise and experienced person.

These days, mentoring takes on many guises and does not need to be a senior person, a formal arrangement or to be developed for a specific role.

Here’s what I know.

Mentoring is about people It’s about trust. And it’s about learning.

Mentoring has to take place in the context of a relationship. Two people come together. Now two people come together often but it usually isn’t a mentoring relationship. So, what makes it a mentoring relationship? The fact that one of those two wishes to gain value from the other. It could even be the case that each gains value from the other as in peer mentoring.

Now, in a formal arrangement such as a mentoring program, the coming together is ‘manufactured’ in the sense that there is a defined purpose and structure. It may be that the mentor is assigned or the mentor may be selected from a pool of possible mentors or a person may seek their own mentor – however the program decrees.

In an organic mentoring process, the mentoring may well go unsaid. The relationship may never be labelled as mentoring. This relationship occurs naturally. A person finds someone whom they believe (consciously or unconsciously) they can learn from and so they spend time together or find opportunities to interact.

When I ask people in my training programs, who do they consider to have been a mentor, invariably they identify:

  • a family member
  • a teacher
  • a boss or colleague

That’s not to say mentors do not occur in other areas of life but these tend to be the most common responses. And these are situations where people are generally placed in each others path by circumstance. By being exposed to each other either one considers they see potential in the other and help to guide them, or, the other sees things in the other which gives them a guidepost.

A mentor can be self-appointed but if the other party does not see that person as a mentor, there will be no mentoring!

What enables one to consider another as a mentor?

Trust. Trust on so many levels.

  1. trust that the mentor has the knowledge, skills, attitude and competence to actually provide something of value
  2. mutual respect. As with any relationship, for it to be of a continuing nature, each has to have respect for the other. If a mentor does not for instance have the respect of the other person, the learning process will not be effective if it occurs at all.
  3. the conversations will be kept confidential and only salient points revealed to others where further connection outside the relationship is beneficial
  4. that each person knows what they are doing. That is, that the mentor is developing not telling, and the person being mentored is taking action on the learning.

Without trust, the relationship will falter if it gets off the ground at all. And it’s worth bearing in mind that it takes time to develop trust but can be lost in an instant.

Like trust, if there is no learning, I would argue that there is no mentoring taking place.

That learning may, as I said earlier, be conscious or unconscious. When I look back on mentors in my life, the ones I value are the ones I learnt most from. Let em give you two examples.

  1. Syd Morgan was the CFO at AHS before it was taken over by Baxter. Syd encouraged my sense of belief in my abilities and taught me to step up my vision. He was in many ways a father figure to me and I greatly value his presence in my life at the time I worked with him. That was a relationship that was not recognised by me as mentoring until many years later when I reflected on the impact his approach had on my life.
  2. Jurgen was a gentleman who was assigned as my mentor in a Women in Business program. At first I was disappointed not to be assigned a female mentor, but then as the relationship continued I understood why ‘the universe’ assigned him to me.  a) he was a master at sales which was my area of weakness at the time and b) he was a no-nonsense, get it done kind of man whereas I was a bit soft and fluffy, Jurgen was exactly what I needed at the time. He taught me about the importance of taking action and doing things you didn’t like. He quoted Rene Rivkin who said ‘you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it!’ which is so true. Anytime since that I’ve baulked at doing something I didn’t like, that quote would pop in my head. Thanks Jurgen!

Everyone has someone in their life who stands out as a shining example of how NOT to be or behave. A mentor is remembered as someone from whom you learnt a positive experience. It may be how to do something, how to behave, how to approach something, a way of being, an attitude, how to navigate politics in your career, how to broaden your thinking or views, any number of lessons can be learned. From a mentor you often don’t just learn the lesson but you consciously apply it and hold them up as a guiding beacon to remind you.

So, back to our question ‘what is mentoring?’.  Let me turn it around…

What is mentoring to you? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below. I’m keen to hear your ideas.