- A MentorcliQ Article -

What Is Mentoring?

Mentoring, Coaching, Sponsorship, and More

What is mentoring, exactly? It’s a hot topic these days as organizations look to improve their leadership pipeline, offer professional development opportunities, increase diversity among their employee base, close skill gaps, address generational issues, and more. With 40% of workers (or more) considering quitting within the next 6 months, organizations need talent development and engagement solutions that help solve all of these problems.

The need for talent development predates the Great Resignation (or Great Reprioritization, as some are calling it). But this emerging issue, whatever term you may want to use to describe it, underscores the need for organizations to find creative ways to engage, connect, attract, and develop their teams. Consequently, mentoring is one of the best options to solve multiple issues underlying employee turnover and organizational growth. 

what is mentoring definition
We’ve been talking about mentoring programs for nearly 20 years now, but we know not everyone has been as focused on it as we have been. There’s often some confusion on what exactly constitutes mentoring, how mentoring differs from coaching, the types of mentors you may find, and how to create an effective mentoring program relationship.

Mentoring Defined: What Is Mentoring?

There are many ways to define mentoring. The most accepted understanding of mentoring is that it’s a 1-to-1 engagement between a learner (the mentee) and a more experienced individual (the mentor) who shares knowledge and guidance around a specific need. 

For example, when someone is starting a business for the first time, they may seek the advice of a more experienced business owner as a mentor who can help them navigate the often difficult trials and errors that are associated with entrepreneurship. Mentoring programs are also exceptionally common with onboarding, where new hires are paired with more experienced team members who help them get acclimated to organizational standards, culture, and processes. 

From a high level, a mentoring relationship is about helping someone's development toward certain goals or objectives. The mentor primarily serves as a sounding board for the mentee, offering guidance and direction, but not dictating the goal. This is why mentoring is typically unique from other types of learning engagements. 

 

formal mentoring relationships

 

Mentoring vs. Coaching vs. Advising: Are there Different Mentoring Relationships?

People often talk about mentors as their coaches, guides, teachers, advocates, and advisors. They sometimes use these terms interchangeably with “mentor” because it helps give a fuller picture of all the roles a mentor can play for a mentee. At the end of the day, we suggest you don’t get too hung up on the terminology (call it whatever makes the most sense to you), but we do suggest that you focus on the outcomes you hope to gain through a mentoring program. 

In fact, a former colleague, Randy Emelo, has spent the past two decades sharing how mentoring can occur in different ways: information-based, skill-based, and advocacy-based. You may find that one of these categories or a combination of these categories helps clarify what you want to achieve with mentoring. 

Information-based mentoring relationship

With this type of mentoring relationship, mentees simply need information or understanding about a particular aspect of their work life. Mentors share their experiences and any techniques that they think will meet the mentees’ immediate needs. The mentor performs three basic functions through informational mentoring:

  • Resourcing: The mentor provides information based on the mentee’s needs.
  • Advising: The mentor becomes a reliable living source of instruction by giving advice.
  • Enlightening: The mentor illustrates and brings understanding to the mentee based on the mentee’s needs.

Skill-based mentoring

With this type of mentoring, mentees need to develop a specific skill. Over 40% of organizations are currently experiencing skills gaps. Many are turning to internal training and mentoring to help close those gaps with reskilling and other development. Mentors make themselves available to handle questions, consult on techniques, point out potential difficulties, set expectations, and report on how they have done it in the past. The mentor performs three basic functions through a skills-based mentoring program:

  • Teaching: The mentor instructs the mentee in a specific skill development area using on-the-job teaching methods
  • Coaching: The mentor instructs the mentee by providing first-hand feedback on current performance
  • Modeling: The mentor becomes a living example for the mentee while they pursue a specific area of skill development

mentor and mentee ideas

Advocacy-based mentoring

With this type of mentoring, mentees need to focus on highly complex interpersonal behaviors. Mentors, although never taking responsibility for mentees’ future successes, become a guiding influence, helping mentees develop the most effective behaviors for various situations. Mentors will assess what abilities mentees possess and help them plan appropriate learning and development activities. Mentors also observe and provide feedback on the mentees’ performance. The mentor performs three basic functions through advocacy-based mentoring:

  • Guiding: The mentor navigates the mentee through the personal development process
  • Consulting: The mentor becomes a sounding board and guides the mentee while they develop a specific behavior or ability
  • Sponsoring: The mentor advocates the mentee’s recognition and promotion

While these different levels of mentoring can exist (and indeed are not even limited to just these three categories), you don’t need to necessarily label your relationship. It can be enough that you are aware of these variations, what they might look like, and what terms might be interchangeable with "mentor" or "mentoring". You may also find your relationship moving between types of mentoring as it evolves, so being flexible in how you view the different types can make sense.

 

How Does a Mentoring Program Work?

 

There’s no single format for how mentoring relationships work. The flow of the mentoring relationship depends on the needs of the mentee, the skills that the mentor has to offer, and the agreed-upon format for the relationship. However, no matter what you call your mentoring engagement, you and your mentoring partner should talk about two critical relationship factors: trust and accountability.

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Trust is the confidence both you and your mentoring partner need in each other’s character, ability, strength, maturity, and truthfulness in the relationship. Mentoring relationships are a mutual process. Trust has to be evident to both of you for the relationship to be productive.

Accountability is the fuel that drives any effective mentoring relationship. It encourages you to plan deliberately, to keep agreements, and to honestly assess your actions and attitudes. This level of honesty can keep your learning relationship-focused and serious. Moreover, accountability supports commitment. If a lack of honest commitment exists, then there will be fewer interactions between the mentee and mentor than are required to produce fruitful results from the relationship.

Mentoring Formats

As far are mentoring formats, there are several that we commonly see and help establish programmatically. These include (but are not limited to):

    • 1-to-1 mentoring: Mentoring relationships between one mentor and one mentee.
    • Group mentoring: Mentoring engagements between one mentor and multiple mentees
    • Affinity groups/circles: Mentoring groups built around different affinities, such as Women’s Networks, Veterans’ Networks, or DEI groups.

There’s effectively no limitation on how a mentoring program or relationship can operate. As long as it meets the objective of connecting individuals into meaningful, learning-focused interactions that are consistently mentee-driven, it’s at least structured in a way that is likely to be successful. 

What Are Good Goals for Mentoring Programs?

Whether you call it mentoring, coaching, sponsorship, information-gathering, or some other term, ultimately, the labels don’t matter. At the end of the day, the important thing is that you are engaged in the practice. And good engagement with mentoring requires effective goals.

What you do in your mentoring relationship will vary depending on the needs of the mentee or the purpose of the program, or both. No two mentoring relationships will look the same. That being the case, there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” mentoring goal. Instead, think of your mentoring goals using the following questions:

  • What mentoring goals align with my personal or professional objectives?
  • What mentoring goals align with the needs of my organization?
  • What personal or professional goals do I have that are achievable through a mentoring relationship?
  • What personal or professional goals do I have that can be achieved with my current mentor?
  • Will I need multiple mentors with different skillsets and experiences to achieve my goals?

 

formal mentoring program connections

 

None of these questions is about any specific goal that you should be working on in a mentoring relationship. Again, that’s going to be unique to the individual mentee, or to the organization and the overall goals behind its sponsored mentoring program. That said, you can make your goals (whatever they may be) more achievable by setting what we call the REAL development goals format. REAL goals are ones that are:

  • Relevant
  • Aspirational
  • Experimental
  • Learning-based

As long as your goals are REAL and align with what you and/or your organization needs, they’re far more likely to fall within the realm of what most people would consider being "good".

Who Can Be a Mentor?

Anyone can be a mentor! Although mentoring is often seen as an exclusive position for more senior members of an organization, the truth is that anyone within a company can be a mentor. This is why Reverse Mentoring programs are increasingly popular, especially for companies trying to solve critical diversity, equity, and inclusion problems. 

One of the keys to good mentoring is in the matching process. When mentors and mentees are appropriately matched and effectively aligned, the mentoring relationship and the mentoring program as a whole see incredible results. Relying on a traditional pen-and-paper matching process is not only tedious but also limits the number of individuals that can be matched within a program.

MentorcliQ’s mentoring software offers an industry-leading matching solution that pairs mentors and mentees based on personality surveys. There are no limits to how many mentors and mentees you can have in a program, and matching takes seconds once your program has been established. Contact us today to learn more about our award-winning mentoring software, different types of mentoring programs, and our extensive resources for training and developing mentors. 

Laura Francis

Hi, I'm Laura Francis

Laura Francis is the Chief Knowledge Officer for MentorcliQ. As a proud mom of a child with disabilities, she enjoys writing about the connections she sees in her personal life and professional life. Her articles can be found on the MentorcliQ Blog, in Training Journal and Chief Learning Officer magazine, as well as on ATD, Training Industry, and other learning and development websites.

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