Mentoring is indeed ancient. It was described in Homer's The Odyssey, and in fact, is named after Mentor, who was the advisor for Ulysses' son during Ulysses' long absence.
Mentoring is the activity of experienced staff (mentors) providing formal or informal guidance to less-experienced staff (mentees).
It is not "on the job" coaching by a supervisor, nor is it counseling to improve inadequate "on the job" performance (though these are often confused). Nor is the mentoring program discussed here an in-house apprenticeship program. It is assumed that an appropriate apprenticeship program is already in place, because this is essential to any technical operation.
Mentoring programs have remarkably similar characteristics even in very different business environments. They are fairly easy to set up and have demonstrated success in attracting and retaining key staff.
Mentoring Program Participants
Three key participants in mentoring programs are:
1. the mentor,
2. the mentee, and
3. the mentoring program manager.
The most commonly recognized trait of a great mentor is excellent listening. Equally important, mentors must mute their own egos so the mentees can express themselves freely.
The ideal mentee should be eagerly accepting of constructive critique. Also, somewhat surprisingly, it is the mentee, rather than the mentor, who should control the direction of the discussions.
The program manager ensures the smooth progress of the mentoring program. The manager must be aware of the beneficial aspects of the program, as well as the potential hazards. The manager has the most work and is responsible for the program meeting its deliverables.
Mentoring Program Life Cycle
Mentoring programs have a definite life cycle, with the following phases usually present, depending of the formality of the program:
• Determine program needs and documentation requirements and objectives.
• Establish process and documentation.
• Solicit participants and propose pairings based on application information.
• Hold a kick-off meeting to introduce pairs and train participants in mentoring.
• Pairs complete documentation.
• At their first meeting, pairs establish the relationship basis and build trust.
• Pairs continue meeting throughout the established mentoring period.
• Mentoring pairs continually monitor progress against their objectives.
• The program manager monitors progress and arranges periodic group meetings so all pairs learn from each other.
• The manager holds a close-out meeting to review lessons learned and to help pairs formally close out their relationships.
Mentoring Program Characteristics
Mentoring programs are surprisingly similar; the main difference is the level of formality (i.e. documentation, structure).
The programs can range from very formal in rigid corporate/organizational settings to very informal professional "friendships" that develop between two members of an organization.
Figure 3: Mentoring program formality continuum
Mentoring Program Valuation and Risk
The benefits and costs of any program are based on how well the program addresses stakeholder objectives. If the program offers a high benefit, the host organization is more willing to invest more resources in the program. Therefore, it's important to understand the context and value of each mentoring program.
The benefits of a mentoring program can be based on many factors, which may include:
• Personnel with special skills, which are important to the organization's success.
• Retirement of an aging work force, increasing the value of the knowledge of remaining staff.
• Difficulty of obtaining special skills and knowledge (e.g., long studies, long job experience, etc).
• Increased competition for skilled workers in the industry/organization.
• Reduced interest in entering the industry. For example, young people may be less interested in entering the trades or certain industries, so more effort will be needed to attract and retain these staff.
The risks of a mentoring program must also be addressed:
• The program might fail to achieve its business objectives.
• The program could be tainted if mentors are seen to give bad advice.
• Discrimination or harassment issues could arise.
• The program could be branded as favoritism.
Whenever economic conditions enhance the value of staff with skilled knowledge, mentoring programs are viewed more favorably by their organizations. Mentoring programs are returning to popularity due to their success in attracting and retaining key staff. Therefore, today organizations are more willing to invest in mentoring programs.
Mentoring programs are easy to set up and have common features. Although not all steps and documents are needed in all mentoring programs, there is a surprising similarity among different programs.
In the past, organizations declared that their successes were based on their people. The best corporations, organizations, and governments now realize that their success does indeed depend on their people. In addition, the people themselves realize that their value can be enhanced through training, education, and competent guidance, so they are increasingly seeking out help in these areas and investing their time to improve themselves.
The more everyone sees the benefits in mentoring programs, the more they are prepared to invest in these programs. In fact, for executives on a fast track, there is even a growth industry of paid mentors who have themselves demonstrated executive success.
In this economic climate, knowledge-based organizations cannot afford to be without mentoring programs for their key knowledge staff.
1. Shea, G. F., Mentoring, How to Develop Successful Mentoring Behaviours. 3rd Ed. Crisp Publications, 2007.
2. Stone, F. M., Coaching, Counseling and Mentoring. AMACOM, 2007.
3. Johnson, W. B., and C. R. Riley, Elements of Mentoring. Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
4. Nigro, N., The Everything Book of Coaching and Mentoring. 2nd Ed. F&W Publications, 2008.
5. PMI Durham Highlands Chapter - Mentoring Program documentation, 2008/9.
6. TRIEC, The Mentoring Partnership - Mentor Handbook. Sage Mentors, 2006.
Ron Gavrin, PEng, MBA, CMRP, PMP, RMP, CCE, MRICS, CQA, TESL, is a consultant and trainer in business processes (e.g., project management, quality, mentoring, etc.). Ron has 4 decades of experience in various Canadian industries, including 28 years as business and project controls manager in a large Canadian nuclear utility. His mentoring experiences were with a large utility and a professional organization and with helping immigrant professional engineers.