What Is Mentoring? A Detailed Guide to Successful Mentoring

Laura Francis
What Is Mentoring?

Mentoring is any form of social learning where someone with more experience (a mentor) helps guide the learning and growth of someone with less experience (a mentee). There are common, but completely understandable confusions on what mentoring is, how it differs from other types of learning engagements, why it matters, and how to even get started by either finding a mentor or launching a mentoring program.

If you’re beginning your journey through mentoring, you’re in luck! This page is a hub for mentoring and will lead you right to other important topics on both the purpose of mentoring and the unique approach to learning that exists within mentoring relationships and programs.

🙌 Hey, HR Leaders and Admins! Mentoring programs can reduce employee retention by 50% or more. Our 2023 Workforce Survival Guide has the deets and a must-see action plan.

What Is Mentoring: Mentoring Defined in Simple Terms

The best way to define 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. However, even as we say that that’s the “best” way to define it, note that a 1-to-1 engagement is the most common but not the only way to structure a mentoring relationship. You can find more on that below in the section on “Mentoring Formats”.

Let’s visualize what mentoring might look like for you here with the following scenario:

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. That individual, the experienced business owner, is in a “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt” position. Meanwhile, the new business owner will have a million questions and need guidance to make it through what will likely be some challenging times ahead.

That, in essence, is the very nature of mentoring. When someone wants to grow and succeed in an area, they’ll seek help. Social learning through mentoring is one of those avenues for help.

What Is the Purpose of Mentoring?

The purpose of mentoring is to grow and learn. For a mentee, that growth and learning is self-directed with guidance from a mentor. For the mentor, the purpose of mentoring is to be that guide and to give back to others the experience they’ve gained in the mentee’s growth area.

As basic and trite as that might sound, it’s actually refreshing to know that mentoring has a very focused purpose.

You’ll find that people don’t often start their personal growth journey by looking for a mentor. Usually, they begin by searching for educational content like written guides, courses, videos, and podcasts that explain more about that topic and try to answer their questions. That type of learning is typically what we call static learning.

With static learning, the individual is simply absorbing information in short bursts. These are treated like “one and done” learning engagements.

Conversely, mentoring would fall more under a dynamic learning model with an emphasis on experiential learning. This type of model, among other things, emphasizes interpersonal connection and moves beyond the “sit and watch” to a more performative model.

👉 KEEP READING: What Is the Purpose of Mentoring?

A dynamic social learning approach is a winning one

Two men in a cartoon hand-drawn work space engaged in a mentoring relationship.

In the case of mentoring, the mentee is the one taking ownership of their own learning, while the mentor digs deep into their cache of experience to help guide the mentee in the right direction. There is simply no replacement for experiential and self-driven learning. In fact, in studies of college students where experiential learning was applied, students who had less experience in a subject area performed 15-30% better on post-exams.

Of course, you may not be a college student. You might be invested in learning about mentoring at an enterprise level. We’ll posit here that the same applies, especially within mentoring relationships. When mentees are able to take control of their learning, get their hands dirty so to speak, and experiment with the right guardrails and guidance put up by a mentor, their growth will soar.

From a business perspective, mentoring is also highly desired by employees. Deloitte found that Millennial workers were more likely to stay at their current organization if they had a mentor. And CNBC found that 90% of workers who had a mentor were happy at work. Workplace happiness is directly tied to better performance, better skill development, better engagement, and better retention.

Mentoring vs Coaching and Mentoring vs Sponsorship

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.

To answer your top-level question here: Are mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring different?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t all happen in sync. In fact, what you’ll likely find is that each of these types of learning engagements all falls under the same umbrella, and work together within a social learning relationship.

In her book, Mentoring Programs that Work, MentorcliQ’s Director of Learning and Development, Jenn Labin, breaks down the key differences this way:

  • Mentoring: an experienced individual offering guidance and support.
  • Coaching: involves utilizing a set of skills to facilitate growth and development, often through active listening and asking questions to encourage problem-solving.

Here’s the thing: there’s no expectation that a coach is necessarily more experienced in an area, although they usually are. And within a mentoring relationship, you can get coached. That doesn’t make the mentor a coach necessarily. So it’s best to look at mentoring as a type of learning relationship and coaching as a type of teaching style or practice.

And, of course, we can’t forget sponsorship. We can define sponsorship this way:

  • Sponsor: An individual who provides support, guidance, and advocacy for a colleague, typically in their career development and advancement.

Especially in the workplace, a sponsor is going to be someone who heavily promotes the idea of you to leaders who may be able to boost your career advancement.

Note this important fact: Mentors are not always sponsors. Many mentoring relationships never transform into sponsorships. Ideally, they will. But there should not be an expectation that they do.

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. Still, there are distinctions between coaching, mentoring, and advising

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 of mine, 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

Image of a light bulb with the word mentoring across it. The words  Motivating, Coaching, Learning, Leading and Inspiring surround the top of light bulb. The word mentoring is in the middle of the bulb.

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 their mentee in specific skill development through on-the-job methods.
  • Coaching: The mentor provides first-hand feedback on their mentee’s current performance.
  • Modeling: The mentor serves as a living example for their mentee in a specific area of skill development.

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

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.

Types of Mentoring Relationships

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.

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. 

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 develop 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.

👉 KEEP READING: 7 Types of Mentors

What Does a Mentee Do?

A mentee’s job is to learn and grow. That simple responsibility makes being a mentee a fun experience, as long as you have a good mentor to work with you. As a mentee, you can grow in all of the ways you want with the added bonus of having someone more experienced than you helping to guide you in the right direction.

Within a mentoring relationship, mentees are often (but not always, depending on the type of mentoring program) typically responsible for the following responsibilities:

  • Creating a vision statement
  • Setting personal goals
  • Organizing meetings
  • Actively listening during meetings with your mentor
  • Putting your mentors’ advice into practice
  • Reflecting on actions you’ve taken (both wins and losses)

Obviously, there’s more to being a mentee than that. But at the highest level, your biggest responsibility as a mentee is to be present and to actively work to progress along your goals.

What Does a Mentor Do?

Mentors leverage their experience to help guide a mentee toward personal and professional development. The only real requirement to be a mentor is to have a successful experience that can be used to help someone else grow. However, in structured mentoring programs, there may be additional requirements for who can be a mentor, such as their tenure in an organization, number of years of experience, their location, and their job function.

When you break out the mentor’s responsibilities, they’re similar to that of a mentee. The mentor’s core responsibilities include.

  • Active listening
  • Role modeling
  • Providing encouragement and support
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Offering only as much guidance as is needed

That last point is one we’ll reiterate here. Earlier, we talked about the difference between static and dynamic learning. We emphasized that dynamic learning was a better, hands-on approach. Mentors need to apply this as much as possible. Mentees don’t learn by listening to your experience. They learn by putting ideas into practice, and having you dig into your experience to help them refine their approach, correct course when they’re wrong, and expand their idea of what’s possible.

A mentor’s most important responsibility is to lean into their experience in a way that helps their mentee achieve that mentee’s goals or objectives. What that looks like will vary widely on the parameters set by both mentors and mentees at the start of a relationship.

Mentors should consider creating a mentoring agreement at the start of a mentoring relationship. Mentoring agreements establish the roles and limitations of both parties. They spell out exactly how much or how little the mentor is responsible for, and vice versa.

What Are Good Goals for Mentoring Programs and Mentoring Relationships?

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.

A mentoring matching diagram that answers the question of "what is mentoring" and "what does mentoring look like?"

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 skill sets and experiences to achieve my goals?

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”.

👉 KEEP READING: 9 Clear Benefits of Mentoring

How to Find a Mentor

Herein lies the biggest challenge of all. Finding a mentor can be difficult in any situation, but especially if you’re not currently part of an organization or group where structured mentoring programs are offered.

To find a mentor as an individual, you can consider the following steps:

  • Reaching out to a friend or family member who has the experience you want to gain
  • Reaching out to someone in your social networks, such as LinkedIn. (If you’re just starting to build a LinkedIn profile, your network will probably be limited. Tools like LinkedHelper.com could help you expand it, or you could do some long hours going group-by-group and profile-by-profile to find like-minded individuals to add to your network.)
  • Using a free or paid 3rd party mentoring service that connects professionals to mentor networks

If you’re looking for a professional or career mentor, there’s a good chance you can find one within your organization. If that’s the case, consider doing the following to find a mentor:

  • Ask about existing mentoring programs and join one
  • Join one of your company’s employee resource groups (ERGs) and seek a mentor through there
  • Ask a peer or senior leader who has more experience to be your mentor

You’ll often find people who do have experience are happy to share it. They’re also often flattered that you would think highly enough of them to ask them to be your mentor. As long as they’re able to push past some feelings of imposter syndrome, they’re more likely than not willing to step up and do what it takes to be the kind of mentor you need them to be.

Keep this in mind: 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.

👉 KEEP READING: 3 Ideas for Empowering Women to Find Mentors

How to Start a Mentoring Program

Starting a mentoring program may be necessary if you want to help grow yourself and those around you, especially in a business or enterprise setting.

To start a mentoring program, plan out these first initial steps:

  • Do some internal research to determine if mentoring programs already exist
  • Conduct internal surveys to determine what type of mentoring programs are needed or wanted
  • Identify several key business objectives that would be positively impacted by a mentoring program
  • Explore the cost of launching and managing a program, to include administrative costs and the cost of mentoring software
  • Create a proposed program structure that includes program goals, projected number of participants, program length, and matching methods
  • Find data that will help executive leaders understand the value of mentoring (we have plenty of data you can use on our mentoring stats page!)
  • Present your proposal to executive leaders.

👉 KEEP READING: How to Start a Mentoring Program

Getting executive buy-in is HARD. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Watch this Mentoring Soundbites video on how to get executive buy-in for mentoring to get some real-world examples for influencing upward. If you found it helpful, click here to subscribe to our YouTube channel, where we post new content every Wednesday at 8 AM EST.

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. Contact us today to learn how we can help you can go from zero (mentoring programs) to hero (of the day because you helped create amazing programs and save your company millions in the process).

Laura Francis