What Is The Role Of A Mentor?

5 min read

Socrates and Plato. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. What do these pairings have in common? These are among the most famous mentor-mentee pairings in history. Mentoring is widely recognized as a powerful tool for development.

The role of a mentor is to help with career and business success and progression. It is flexible and relatively easy to do. If done correctly, it can bring life-changing benefits to both mentors and mentees. Mentoring is not only for high-profile individuals. It is pretty common in the informal setting. It can be found in every situation and organization, involving people from all walks of life.

What is mentoring? What is the role of a mentor? How does it work? What benefits does mentoring bring?


History and Definition

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “mentor” as a trusted counsellor or guide. Its synonyms include coach, tutor, counsel, and shepherd. The word “mentor” comes from Mentor, son of Alcimus in Homer’s Odyssey. In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Odysseus was away from home fighting and journeying for 20 years. During that time, Telemachus, the son he left as a babe in arms, grew up under the supervision of Mentor, an old and trusted friend. When the goddess Athena decided it was time to complete the education of young Telemachus, she visited him disguised as Mentor, and they set out together to learn about his father. Today, the word mentor for anyone who is a positive, guiding influence in another (usually younger) person’s life.

Historically, significant mentorship systems include the guru-disciple tradition practised in Hinduism and Buddhism, Elders, the discipleship system practised by Rabbinical Judaism and the Christian church and apprenticeship under the medieval guild system.


The Mentor In Modern Concepts

Since the 1970s, it has spread in the United States, mainly associated with advocates for workplace equity. These advocates popularized the term “mentor” and the concept of career mentorship. It became part of a more extensive social capital lexicon that included glass ceiling, bamboo ceiling, networking, role model, and gatekeeper. These terms served to identify and address the problems preventing non-dominant groups from professional success. Mainstream business literature has since adopted these terms and concepts, promoting them as pathways to success for all career climbers. These terms became a fixture in the general American vocabulary in the mid-1990s. Mentoring and the other associated concepts have been described as “an innovation in American management”.


The Role Of A Mentor

Guide and coach

Mentors provide guidance and feedback by sharing experience and expertise as appropriate. A mentor acts as a sounding board for ideas and action plans.

Champion and cheerleader

Mentors help mentees to venture out of their comfort zones. They offer encouragement and support to try new things. As a champion and cheerleader, a mentor celebrates successes and help mentees understand when things deviate from plans. They act as a role model for the mentee.

Person of resource and recommendations

To help with the mentee’s personal development and growth, a mentor can recommend books, workshops, and other learning tools. He encourages mentees to join networking organizations or introduce them to his contacts.

Devil’s advocate and “truth-sayer.”

Due to the implied trust in a mentor-mentee relationship, mentors can provide tough feedback that mentees need to hear to move forward. They push mentees to take risks when appropriate. The role of a mentor includes helping mentees consider and weigh potential consequences of decisions and actions to avoid the drawbacks and predictable surprises that may occur.


The Benefits Of Mentoring

A multi-disciplinary meta-analysis study comparing mentored and non-mentored individuals found mentoring has significant behavioural, attitudinal, health-related, relational, motivational, and career benefits. For a learner, these benefits depend on the different functions being performed by the Mentor. The concept of mentoring functions developed from qualitative research in an organizational context has functions that belong under two significant factors – psychosocial support and career-related support. Psychological support includes role modelling, friendship, emotional support, and encouragement, while career-related support includes providing advice and discussing goals. An early quantitative approach found role modelling to be a third distinct factor. In mentoring for college success, the fourth function concerning knowledge transfer was also identified, which was also discovered in mentoring creativity.

In the organizational setting, these are among the many benefits for an employer to develop a mentorship program for new and current employees:

Career development

A career development mentoring program for employees helps junior employees to learn the skills and behaviours from senior employees they need to advance to higher-responsibility positions. This type of mentoring program can help align organizational goals with employees’ personal career goals of progressing within the organization. It allows employees to advance professionally and learn more about their work. This collaboration can also give employees a sense of engagement, potentially leading to better retention rates and increased employee satisfaction.

Mentoring High Potential Employees

A mentoring program for high-potential employees that gives them one-on-one guidance from senior leaders can help engage employees. It can provide them with the opportunity to develop and increase the chances of staying in the organization. This type of mentoring addresses the problem of retention of the most talented employees in organizations who usually seek more significant challenges and responsibilities. These qualified employees are likely to leave for a different organization if they feel they cannot develop.

Mentoring For Diversity

A diverse workforce is regarded as a way to bring in new ideas. In many Western countries, women and ethnic minorities are significantly underrepresented in executive positions and boards of directors. A mentoring program that will enable women and underrepresented minorities to advance can only benefit an organization.

Reverse Mentoring

Mentoring typically involves a more experienced, typically older employee or leader guiding a younger employee. But the opposite approach can also be used. With younger generations more tech-savvy than their predecessors, younger employees may be more familiar with these technologies than senior employees. The younger generations can help the older generations get on board with current trends.

Mentoring For Knowledge Transfer

Employees must possess a particular set of skills to accomplish the tasks at hand. Mentoring can teach employees to be organized. It can also give them access to an expert that can provide feedback and answer questions.

Types of Mentoring

Formal Mentoring

Corporations or organizations set up formal mentoring relationships. This mentoring solicits and recruits qualified individuals who are willing to mentor. It provides training to the mentors and helps match the mentors with a person in need of mentoring. While formal mentoring systems include various structural and guidance elements, they usually allow the Mentor and mentee to have an active role in choosing whom they want to work with.

Informal Mentoring

In contrast to formal mentoring programs, informal mentoring systems occur without structured recruitment, mentor training and mentor-mentee matching. It is usually commonly developed from business networking, participation in trade associations and social organizations. Informal mentoring is very common and takes a binary or one-to-one form in many areas such as science, engineering and mathematics.


The Difference Between Mentoring and Coaching

The terms mentors and coaches are often used synonymously. The two positions can overlap but are very different. Coaching can be part of the mentorship, but mentors are not coaches. Coaches help mentees meet specific short-term goals. The type of goal that a coach facilitates is skills-based and specific. For example, a coach can help executives improve delivery when presenting a speech during a convention. The executive will be ultimately responsible for achieving the goal of delivering a speech well, but a coach will control the method for reaching this single goal in the short term.

The role of a mentor is to support the mentee as he takes personal responsibility for working toward the accomplishment of broader goals over a sustained period. The Mentor becomes a source of wisdom and support. He is not someone who observes and advises on specific actions or behavioural changes in daily activities.

Toastmasters International, a global non-profit promoting public speaking and leadership and who has a well-established mentorship program, outlines the differences between coaching and mentoring:



Focus on the short-term accomplishment of one goal or the development of a single skill

Focus on multiple,

often longer-term goals

Responsible for providing the means

for a mentee to meet a goal

Responsible for supporting the mentee

as she works to accomplish her goals

Specific feedback and direction on managing a single situation or topic

General, non-judgmental

feedback and support

Skills-specific involvement

More personal involvement

Tasks and steps for accomplishment determined by coach

Tasks and steps for accomplishment determined by mentee

Provides direction for mentee to

guide future steps and actions

Protégé determines future actions


Traits Of A Successful Mentor

Successful mentors often possess the following traits:

They are experienced and knowledgeable.

The role of a mentor is to offer a broad spectrum of skills and expertise that can benefit a mentee. In addition, a successful mentor knows how to balance sharing expertise with allowing mentees to learn on their own. A knowledgeable mentor can confidently and non-judgmentally address any questions from a mentee while knowing when to step aside and allow a mentee to learn independently.

They are positive and supportive.

Mentors reinforce successful strategies and provide constructive feedback when mentees face challenges. Sometimes a mentee may need someone to listen to her thoughts and frustrations. At other times, the mentee may benefit from hearing how the Mentor overcame obstacles to create positive and successful outcomes. Successful mentors can give unconditional support. By providing non-judgmental support as a mentee chooses that she feels most passionate about, the Mentor helps a mentee gain confidence.

They are respectful and caring.

A good mentor focuses on similarities rather than differences. He shows respect for the mentee’s unique experiences and background. Mentors can demonstrate respect and care by asking questions and listening to identify the mentee’s specific needs and goals. By listening and noting differences but focusing on commonalities, he will provide tailored feedback.

They are committed and dependable.

Commitment is an essential component of a successful mentor-mentee relationship. Both Mentor and mentee can define early on their goals – in terms of regular meetings and communication.


How Mentoring Benefits Mentors

The mentor-mentee relationship is mutually beneficial. Mentors are accomplished in other places in their lives, but mentors and mentees learn new ideas and share varying perspectives during a mentorship. Both Mentor and mentee find new ways of approaching people, topics, and situations. As a result, mentors gain experience with one-on-one communication, counselling, and coaching. They become adept at sharing information and knowledge with mentees at all levels of experience.


The Mentee’s Responsibilities

The first step to establishing a mentor-mentee relationship is discussing and comparing expectations for both the Mentor and mentee. Once each person’s responsibilities and the way to communicate have been clarified, both Mentor and mentee can focus on their roles.

The mentee must maximize this experience to get the full benefit. Most of all, he must be mindful of his responsibilities as a mentee:

  • Be coachable and open to hearing feedback from the Mentor regardless of positive or not.
  • Ask for honest advice or critiques. Be a good listener by taking what is helpful and leaving the rest.
  • Provide structure for the relationship. At the outset, mention some initial career goals like learning specific procedures or processes, or preparing for a promotion, for example.
  • Discuss with Mentor how to best measure the success and effectiveness of the mentor-mentee relationship together.
  • Schedule conversations with the Mentor and keep those appointments faithfully.
  • Commit to steps to developmental progress or discuss taking calculated risks to support the move towards identified goals. Keep track of discussions with Mentor and follow up precisely on those steps when meeting.
  • Brainstorm for ways to drive and maintain the relationship with Mentor. The Mentor his or her time to help, so the mentee must also participate and actively pursue learning.


Have we missed anything or have any questions? Get in touch

If you enjoyed reading this, don’t forget to share.

You might also enjoy these popular business mentoring related articles Questions For Mentors To Ask Mentees, Good Topics For A Mentoring Session and A Guide To Startup CEO Mentoring on the same topic.


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Learn more about how we support startups with their growth and business mentoring needs.

Photo by Le Wagon on Unsplash

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