What is Mentoring, and What is it Not?

What is Mentoring and what it is not

While there is so much talk about the benefits of mentoring in the workplace, it may seem a little late to ask the question, “exactly what is mentoring?” Although it is a somewhat fluid concept, there are some clear distinctions between mentoring and other activities. Before joining or starting a professional mentoring program at your workplace, it’s important to have a clear idea of what mentoring is.

What is Mentoring?

While there are several different kinds of mentoring, there are two main components: it is focused on the mentee’s learning and development, and it’s relationship-based.


Mentoring is about learning.

The goal of mentoring is to help the mentee learn and develop. Often, the relationship focuses on growing complex skills such as communication and leadership and growing implicit or institutional knowledge.

Of course, the mentor often will learn from the mentee and otherwise grow from the relationship, but the main purpose is to develop the mentee. Likewise, mentoring is one of the few organizational activities in which direct business results take a back seat.

While business outcomes of the mentoring program as a whole are important (such as increasing diversity or retention of key employees), the goal of a particular mentoring relationship shouldn’t be about getting better performance from the mentee. Ultimately, the benefits of mentoring need to be focused on building the capabilities of the mentee.


Also read: The Right Structure for Your Virtual Mentoring Program


Mentoring is relationship-based.

In some activities that focus on the professional development of an individual, such as training or coaching, the relationship is more transactional. For example, a trainer may only spend one day with a trainee, with no follow-up or little recognition of the trainee as a unique person.

However, mentoring is relationship-based. The rapport or chemistry of the mentor and mentee is important to the success of the relationship. Mentor pairs should be matched carefully, as a mismatch can lead to poor outcomes.

A mentoring software such as Mentoring Complete can help match mentors and mentees in organizations with formal mentoring programs. 


What Mentoring is NOT

Some mentors and mentees go into a professional mentorship with unrealistic or off-base expectations. When this happens, the relationship isn’t likely to be successful, which is why it is so important that all participants in a mentoring program understand what is mentoring and what it isn’t. For more on how to set expectations in a mentoring relationship, see our online mentoring certification at Mentoring University.


Mentoring is not giving advice.

Sometimes, mentors may want to prevent their mentees from making mistakes or missteps. However, it’s not the mentor’s role to prescribe a path forward for the mentee.

First, the mentor must recognize that the mentee’s journey is their own, and what worked for the mentor may not apply in the case of the mentee. Second, if the mentor gives directive advice to the mentee, the mentee loses the opportunity to make their own decision and thus loses the opportunity to grow and develop.

Although they generally have good intentions, mentors that give advice may unwittingly hamstring their mentee’s growth.


Also read: Four Overlooked Benefits of Mentoring


Mentoring is not therapy.

What mentoring is not

While a good mentor will listen to the mentee without judgment, it’s important not to confuse the mentor with a therapist. 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.  When the conversation goes from reflecting to ruminating, it’s important to take a step back and realign the mentoring relationship with the mentee’s development goals.


Mentoring is not coaching.

While there are many similarities (and sometimes even overlap) between coaching and mentoring, there are some clear differences between the two. Activities can often look the same in both coaching and mentoring, the coaching relationship is fundamentally different than the mentoring relationship.

While a coach might be paid directly for their work, a mentor participates for more altruistic reasons or for the benefits that the mentor receives from the relationship. Also, coaching tends to be more short-term and focused on a particular skills gap, like formal presentation skills.

While a mentor and mentee might engage in coaching on presentation or other specific skills through the course of the professional mentorship, the overall focus of the relationship is generally much more broad than in coaching.


Also read: Building Mentoring Skills: How to Wind Down the Relationship


Mentoring is not a passing of torch.

The conception of mentoring as a leader choosing and grooming a successor is a pernicious yet generally unproductive one in which a leader hand-picks their protege and shares all of the “secrets” with the protege. In this understanding of mentoring, the mentee is a lucky “chosen one,” a passive recipient of the gifts of the mentor, and the mentor is unnecessarily centered in the relationship.

In true mentoring, the relationship is much more driven by the mentee, and the mentee's development and growth is at the forefront of the relationship.

A layperson’s understanding of what is mentoring can include many misconceptions. While human resources management professionals may be familiar with the term and all its nuances, it’s important to remember that not all business professionals will have the same understanding. If you’re starting a mentoring program, make sure the mentor and mentee have a clear understanding around the question “what is mentoring?” 


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Topics: Mentoring Best Practices, Formal Mentoring, Mentoring Tips, Formal vs. Informal Mentoring, workplace mentoring