5 Stages of the Mentoring Process: A Functional Approach

Sam Cook


5 Stages of the Mentoring Process: A Functional Approach

Oddly enough, good things tend to come in fives. Five fingers (which are essential for gripping and holding); five toes (which help us balance when walking on two legs); Five Guys Burgers and Fries (because, well, yum); and undoubtedly our 5 Steps to Launch Your Employee Mentoring Program whitepaper (which you can download completely for free right here right below this paragraph!) Once your programs are launched, you can break them into a multi-stage mentoring process and view them through two distinct functional (or purpose) lenses.

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While there’s no set rule about how long a mentoring relationship should last (micro-mentoring and flash mentoring can take as little as days or hours, while some structured programs can last for a couple of years or more), most mentoring relationships cycle through these stages. In some cases, relationships cycle multiple times as new goals are set and achieved and as the needs and circumstances of the mentee change.

In this article, we’ll explore what mentoring functions are and how each stage of the mentoring process works to serve them.

What Are the Main Mentoring Functions?

If you’re at this point in your program development process, you likely already know what a mentoring relationship is all about: A professional relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) supports and guides a less experienced person (the mentee) in their career development. As we’ve noted in previous posts, this is how mentoring works traditionally, but not always, since peer-to-peer and reverse mentoring are fully legitimate strategies, as well.

Functionally, mentoring is a process that aims to nurture the growth of the mentee, both professionally and personally. That can happen regardless of the dynamic, but there’s still a certain DNA present within effective mentoring relationships. The mentor provides advice, shares knowledge and experiences, and helps the mentee navigate challenges.

The main functions of mentorship can be broadly categorized into career functions and psychosocial functions.

Career functions

Career functions of mentorship are aimed at fostering the professional growth and advancement of the mentee. These functions are:

  • Career pathing: Mentors help mentees understand the nature of their desired career path and how to navigate through it
  • Skill development: Mentors work with mentees to help them grow skills requisite to their current or desired career path
  • Sponsorship: Mentors actively advocate for their mentees, helping them to secure key assignments or promotions that can accelerate their career trajectories.
  • Exposure and visibility (networking): Mentors provide opportunities for mentees to demonstrate their skills to decision-makers and influential individuals within an organization or industry.
  • Professional development – Mentors offer guidance and constructive feedback to help mentees develop specific professional skills and knowledge.
  • Challenging assignments – Mentors facilitate the development and learning process by assigning tasks that stretch the mentee’s abilities, encouraging growth through practical experience.

Psychosocial functions

Psychosocial functions of mentorship contribute to the personal and interpersonal development of the mentee. These functions are:

  • Role Model – Mentors exemplify professional behavior and attitudes, providing a blueprint for mentees to emulate.
  • Acceptance and Confirmation – Mentors offer support and validate the mentee’s personal qualities and professional skills. This helps enhance mentee’s self-confidence and reinforce their sense of identity and worth in their professional life.
  • Counseling – In a psychologically safe workplace, mentors provide a safe space or support system for mentees to discuss their anxieties and challenges. Mentee feels secure enough to share thoughts and concerns without fear of negative consequences.
  • Friendship – A mentor-mentee relationship can evolve into a genuine friendship that provides emotional support and camaraderie.

Both sets of mentoring functions are crucial for the well-rounded development of the mentee, equipping them with the necessary tools and resilience to succeed in their career and personal life. In fact, you’ll find that most mentoring relationships pull from each of these functional buckets to create a successful engagement.

Sean Cain, a Director of Global Talent at Disney, explained this combination of functions exceptionally well in the following video.

5 Stages of a Mentoring Relationship

A mentoring relationship is a dynamic and evolving journey that can significantly impact both mentor and mentee. Here are five stages of a mentor process and how they function and contribute to a fruitful and transformative mentoring experience.

Stage 1: Rapport Building

Rapport is the foundation of a successful mentoring relationship. The first stage is about creating a mutual sense of trust, respect, and understanding. Without rapport, the subsequent stages of mentoring can’t be as effective because they rely on the strong, positive connection established early on.

To build rapport, mentors should engage in active listening, show genuine interest in the mentee’s concerns, and demonstrate empathy. Sharing personal experiences and being consistently available also strengthens this bond. The mentor’s empathetic approach fosters a sense of psychological safety, which is crucial for open communication. It’s about showing up, not just as a guide but as a reliable confidant.

Action step

Breaking the ice can be a bit challenging at this stage. Assuming your mentee and mentors are paired properly, the relationship should feel natural. But even then, that doesn’t mean they’ll immediately understand how to engage in the getting-to-know-you phase. Engaging in different mentoring activities can help both parties more quickly build the rapport they need to accelerate to the next stage.

Stage 2: Setting Direction

Once rapport is established, setting the direction and some ground rules for the mentoring relationship is crucial. This second stage involves identifying the mentee’s goals and what they wish to achieve with the mentor’s support. Here, mentors might start planning how to provide exposure and visibility and protect the mentee from potential setbacks.

Clear expectations are the roadmap for the journey ahead, and mentors can help mentees set ambitious yet realistic career goals. Mentors and mentees should discuss and agree upon the objectives, the mentee’s responsibilities, and the mentor’s role. This clarity prevents misunderstandings and keeps both parties focused on the mentee’s growth.

Action step:

Most junior-level workers don’t know how to set goals. One study found that only 8% of people achieve their goals. That’s scary, but it’s indicative of the fact that most people, again, don’t know how to set goals. One important place to start is helping mentees understand what goal they should even have. Start by helping mentees understand the difference between goals and objectives. Then, have them plot their goals into action steps with achievable milestones.

Stage 3: Progression

Image of mentor and mentee building rapport within a mentoring fuction.

The progression stage is where the mentee starts to make significant strides towards their goals. It’s a phase characterized by learning, development, and sometimes, challenge. Challenges are inevitable, but they are also growth opportunities. Mentors can help mentees by providing resources, sharing insights, and offering encouragement to persist through difficulties.

This stage is also about deepening the role model influence and providing counseling. Mentors support mentees in navigating professional challenges and personal doubts, enhancing their resilience and self-confidence.

Action step

This is often where the psychosocial functions of the mentoring relationship come into play. Mentoring gets challenging when mentees start to run up against their limits of what they can (or believe they can) achieve. That’s frustrating for mentees, but it’s also exactly when mentors need to be there for encouragement and to help mentees work past those barriers — both the emotional and skill-based barriers.

Start with making sure mentors are trained in navigating the emotions of others. Mentoring is a social learning strategy; that means your mentors will, at times, need to be sensitive to the emotions of their mentees and will need to know how to be emotionally available during engagements with their mentees.

You don’t have to enroll them in professional counseling courses, but helping them raise their emotional intelligence or EQ, is a great place to start. Help mentors and mentees better understand their own emotions and where you can make emotional intelligence, or EQ, part of your mentors’ training. HelpGuide.org has an excellent post on improving emotional intelligence you can download, share, and discuss with mentors.

Stage 4: Winding Down

As goals are met, the mentoring relationship naturally begins to wind down. This stage is about preparing both mentor and mentee for the eventual closure of their formal relationship. Mentors can focus on ensuring the mentee is set up for future success, perhaps by solidifying their network or establishing a path for continued growth.

Acknowledging progress and celebrating achievements reinforces the value of the mentoring experience. It’s a time for reflection on how far the mentee has come and the role the mentor played in that journey.

Action step

There are two important actions mentors and mentees need to take at this step:

  1. Understanding when it’s actually time to move on.
  2. Making sure to properly express gratitude

We have content on both that we recommend as part of this stage:

Stage 5: Moving On

This final stage is a transition from a structured mentoring process to a more autonomous phase for the mentee, with the mentor often taking on a less active role and providing occasional guidance and support as needed.

The end of formal mentoring doesn’t mean the end of the relationship. Many mentors and mentees choose to stay in touch, evolving into a professional network connection or even a lifelong friendship.

Mentoring is a transformative process that benefits both the mentor and the mentee. When both parties understand how to navigate each stage, mentors can provide invaluable support to their mentees, and mentees can maximize their growth and development through this structured relationship.

Action step

Will the relationship move to sponsorship, or will the mentee and mentor re-engage again in the future? That’s something that should be decided rather early on. Many mentees don’t understand the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and many mentors may feel pressure to be a sponsor, even if they believe the mentee hasn’t quite earned that type of relationship yet.

Spend time teaching your mentors when the mentorship should lead to sponsorship and how to communicate that difference to their mentees.

This Mentoring Masterminds video will walk you through the signs that a mentoring relationship is ready to transform into one where sponsorship can occur.

Fostering a Positive Mentor-Mentee Relationship

One of the beauties of mentorship is that while it’s structured, it’s also organic and can be tailored to the individual needs of the mentee. No two mentoring relationships will follow the exact same path. The mentor and mentee must be attentive to the unique contours of their mentoring relationship and be willing to adapt their approach accordingly.

The dynamic and organic nature of mentorship is what makes it a uniquely rewarding experience for both mentors and mentees. Unlike rigid, formulaic approaches to professional development, mentorship offers a level of flexibility and personalization that can significantly enhance its effectiveness and long-lasting impact.

Consequently, a truly winning approach starts with the match. When mentors and mentees are properly matched, the relationship flows naturally. Learn more about how mentoring software creates matches that can decrease turnover rates by 50% or more.

Sam Cook

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