What is mentoring? Who is a mentor? Several experts have published their definitions over the years.
Kathy Kram, well known author of multiple papers and books on mentoring and Professor in Management at the Boston University School of Management, defines a mentor as “someone who may provide a host of career development and psychosocial functions, which may include role modelling and sponsoring.” These insights were published in her book Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organisational Life in 1984.
Fast forward some 35 odd years and today, in less academic terms we understand mentoring to be the offering of advice or guidance by a person – typically with more experience, skills or expertise – for the benefit of another individual’s personal and professional development.
Mentoring is often used in the same context as coaching, yet they have very different applications.
According to Kram, the career functions of mentoring involve sponsorship, protection, challenge, exposure and visibility. Each of these tends to relate to on-the-job activities aiming to enhance an individual’s capability and standing in an organisation. Coaching however focuses on an individual’s inner self; including behaviours and values, clarity of identity and effectiveness in a role.
We define mentoring as “a collaborative relationship, that uses an experiential learning framework to help the mentee identify and remove any interference that limits the expression of their full potential.”
There are also times when mentoring is required, when a colleague wants the benefit of someone’s knowledge, experience and advice on what course of action he/she should take.
Then there are times when a coaching conversation is called for, when a more structured approach is needed and professional experience and beliefs are not what’s required, and may even get in the way. In times like these, the goal is to facilitate the process of self-discovery, helping the individual commit to action based on their own conclusions.
The difference between these two situations is significant and requires very different conversations. Whilst there are clear differences between mentoring and coaching, what they do have in common is a shared objective to help a person enhance or realise their capability and potential.
Mentoring involves at a minimum three parties – the mentor, the mentee and the organisation who all stand to benefit from the positive effects it can deliver.