What mentoring is - and what it is not

Mentoring can be defined as the process in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps guide or advise a less experienced person. While generally the mentor is older, that isn’t always true, or even a good assumption to make. Sometimes mentoring is a give and take relationship, where two people exchange ideas in their areas of expertise to support each other. And sometimes the more traditional relationships actually are accurate.

Mentoring is essentially a supportive form of development tool that focuses on helping another individual manage their personal and professional skills.

It is a collaborative relationship based on mutual respect and trust and intended to drive personal and professional growth, motivation and inspiration (not just for the person being mentored!). A good mentoring relationship provides honest and specific feedback and a route to growth.

Mentorship, like all relationships, evolves through stages over time, allowing the holistic development of both partners. It may include career guidance, skill development, role modelling, psychosocial and emotional support, and helping the mentee develop a supportive network of other mentors and peers.

It is an on-going relationship that helps the mentee develop their own professional identity and pathway for success, not creating a clone of the Mentor. All of the components that make up quality mentoring are important; however, mentee support and facilitating networking is especially valuable. As young professionals strive to develop a professional identity, they often feel doubt and inadequacy despite their education, experience and accomplishments. Mentor guidance, support, and feedback help mentees see themselves as members of a professional group, building self-esteem, confidence, and trust.

Importantly the agenda must be set by the mentee with the mentor providing support and guidance. The mentor'€™s role is to respond to the mentee's needs and agenda; it is not to impose his or her own programme.

Sometimes what something isn't is just as important as what it is. So now, here some things that mentoring is not.

1. Mentoring is not coaching or training.

    Mentoring is not coaching, training or teaching though at times it may feel as if all of these are involved. There is a place for both coaches and mentors in the world, but it’s not the same place. The difference is important but can be unclear.  Look at the section Push or Pull – the difference between mentoring and coaching for more information.

    2. Mentoring is not giving (or receiving) advice.

      Despite honourable intentions, and the genuine desire to prevent mistakes, giving and accepting advice may unwittingly undo everything you are both trying to achieve. It is not the mentor's role to prescribe a path forward for the mentee. The mentee'€™s journey is their own, and what worked for the mentor may not apply for this mentee and perhaps more importantly, the mentee loses the opportunity to make their own decision and thus loses the opportunity to grow and develop.

      3. Mentoring is not therapy or counselling.

      A mentor is there to listen and reflect but not to solve the mentee's problems or make decisions for them. There should be a constant undercurrent of positivity in mentoring; you should be talking about moving forward and making progress, not dwelling on issues and troubles in a way that bogs the relationship down. The goal of the relationship is not to rehash the mentee's childhood or other things that have happened in the past, but instead to focus on the future.

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      4. Mentoring is not a substitute for managing or supervising the mentee.

      Mentors don't set the agenda for the mentee or hold the mentee accountable to anyone but themselves.

      5. Mentoring is not a one-way street or a €˜'passing of the torch'.

      The idea of a leader choosing and grooming a successor is not what this is about. In this situation, the mentee is a passive recipient of the gifts of the mentor, and the mentor is unnecessarily centred in the relationship. The relationship must be about making a connection and sharing knowledge and experience, with the mentee's development and growth is at the forefront of the relationship.

      Additionally, mentorship is never performance appraisal, discipline or performance management, or assessment in any way, neither is it a sort cut to promotion or better remuneration.

      Mentoring is not a cure all and€“ no matter how good a mentor and/or a mentoring programme may be, progress and achievement can only be accomplished by an individual wanting to change and move forward by applying what they learn to their own activities through task-setting, goal-setting and activity in general.