Learning Skills

What is Mentoring?

See also: Learning from Mentoring.

This page provides an introduction to the concept of mentoring. Our page What is Coaching? explains that coaching and mentoring are very similar, and that there is a general agreement that a mentor helps someone to learn and develop faster than they would otherwise do so.

Mentoring tends to focus on the future, and broader skills for personal or career development, whereas a coaching relationship tends to focus on here-and-now problems.

“This is my son, mine own Telemachus…”

The original ‘Mentor’ was appointed by Odysseus to act as tutor and guide to his son Telemachus while Odysseus was fighting in Troy. The goddess Athena appeared to Telemachus in the guise of Mentor and advised him to stand up to his mother Penelope’s suitors, hence the idea of a ‘mentor’ as a guide and wise counsellor.

Key Aspects of Mentoring

Unlike a management relationship, mentoring relationships tend to be voluntary on both sides, although it is considered possible for a line manager to also be a mentor to the people that they manage. Unlike a coaching relationship, mentoring relationships are more usually unpaid.

The idea behind mentoring relationships is a semi-charitable one: that the more successful, senior partner, the mentor, wishes to pass on some of what they’ve learned to someone else who will benefit from their experience.

Some organisations run formal mentoring programmes that match mentors with learners. However, less formal mentoring relationships can also work well.

British mentoring programmes tend to have four key elements: improving performance, career development, counselling and sharing knowledge. In other countries, especially the US, there is also an element of the mentor acting as a sponsor for the learner, but this is not usually seen in the UK.

Mentoring relationships, especially formal ones organised through a mentoring programme, are often entered into with a defined time limit, or a defined goal. Having such a framework in place can be easier for both parties to agree than an open-ended commitment.

For example, a learner may agree to work with a mentor for a year, or until they achieve a particular desired promotion. After they have reached the time limit or achieved the goal, terms can be renegotiated. The mentor and learner may decide to continue to work together, especially if the relationship has been productive and helpful to both.

The Roles of a Mentor

In 2004, David Clutterbuck, an academic who studied mentoring relationships, coined an acronym for what mentors do:

  • Manage the relationship
  • Encourage
  • Nurture
  • Teach
  • Offer mutual respect
  • Respond to the learner's needs

At first, the mentor is likely to take responsibility for developing the relationship, building rapport, and ensuring that the climate of meetings is conducive to learning for the person being mentored (the mentee).

The mentor also needs to take responsibility for the process of meetings and the relationship more generally, for example making sure that a learning contract has been agreed, however informal, and that periodic reviews are held - to make sure that it is still working for both parties.

As time passes and the relationship develops, the mentee is likely to take on more responsibility, especially for what is discussed.

A mentor can take on several different roles in the course of a mentoring relationship, depending on the requirements of the learner.

These include:

Learning Consultant

There are two parts of this: supporting the mentoring process and the content of learning. This role includes helping the learner to clarify their goals, or their learning style.

The mentor may also help the learner to reflect on their experience and draw out learning. They may also be able to provide the learner with theoretical models to support their learning, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and the Ladder of Inference.


As will be clear from our pages What is Coaching? and Coaching Skills, anyone can adopt a coaching approach, and a mentor is no exception.

Coaching requires a belief that the learner holds the key to their own problems, and a willingness to help them explore the issue including supporting thinking and experimenting with new ways of working.


The mentor may use counselling skills such as active listening, reflecting and clarifying to help the learner to gain insight into their own processes. The mentor may also take on a counsellor role if it becomes clear that the learner is struggling with an internal block to their thinking.

However, there are limits to how far this role should be taken, see our page Counselling Skills for more on the role of the counsellor.

Adviser or Information Resource

This is a role that is often used when someone is new to an organisation, during an induction period for example. The mentor helps the learner to develop their understanding quickly, or to support their ongoing career development.

In this case, the mentor becomes a valuable source of information, and not just a sounding board. The mentor may also share his or her experience to help the learner to understand a particular work situation.

Role Model

This role, interestingly, is the one that requires least effort from the mentor, because it is usually about how they behave naturally.

The learner may have been attracted to them as a mentor because of the way that they handle certain situations. The learner will therefore learn from watching how the mentor behaves, both in the mentoring relationship and beyond.

Critical Friend

The role of critical friend is one of the most important, though most difficult, mentoring roles to successfully undertake.

It requires the mentor to listen, encourage, draw out, reflect back and challenge assumptions, and, if necessary, provide critical feedback on ideas or plans under discussion.

The role requires giving constructive feedback, and strong emotional intelligence and awareness of feelings.

Formal or Informal?

Some people always have and always will turn for support, encouragement, counsel or challenge to senior colleagues, good listeners or to those they perceive as having desirable attributes.

It makes little or no difference whether they consider this as a formal mentoring relationship or just a good working relationship, it is ‘mentoring’ in its broadest sense: the use of a wise guide or counsellor.  

What’s in it for Me? The Benefits of Mentoring

A mentoring relationship can have huge benefits for both parties.

For the learner, there is obviously the opportunity to explore their learning and benefit from someone else’s focus and expertise, either in a particular subject or in supporting the learning process.

Learning and development can often get pushed to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list when we’re busy, and a mentoring relationship brings it forward again, not least because of the need to prepare for and then attend a mentoring session.

For the mentor, the benefits may be more subtle.

It is always nice to feel that we are doing something valuable and supporting someone else. A mentoring relationship may also be a useful opportunity to work on a leadership style, particularly coaching, or other communication skills without comments from co-workers about the change.

A Final Word

Mentoring relationships are not for everyone, and may not be appropriate for every stage in your career.

However, a good and productive mentoring relationship with the right person will provide huge benefits to you both. It is well worth spending time to find a suitable mentor if you feel that this would be helpful to your learning and development.