Lessons For Mentors in Cross-Level & Function Settings

by Barry Sweeny, © 2003


The Ideal Match?

One of the most used criteria for matching a mentor and a protege is that a mentor should be from the same site and same department or should be an employee in the same functional area as the protege. This matching is considered important because a key task of the mentor is to help the protege learn the job assignment and/or skills which they must master. For several practical reasons, this criteria is not always used or even possible in matching some mentoring pairs. Consider, for instance, who should mentor a new department manager when that protege is the only one in the building?

What should we do when we cannot find the ideal match? The following article is written to three audiences and includes some of the mentor matching insights I have gained as a result of personal interaction with many cross-level and cross-function mentors and proteges.

  • If you are a mentor or a protege working across a level or functional area, you can learn from these mentors’ experiences.
  • If you have afriend who is mentoring in a cross-level and cross-function setting, you may learn what you can do to support them in this tough, but potentially successful situation.
  • Finally, the insights we have gained from these situations are lessons which all mentors must learn because all mentor pairs will someday reach a point where the job assignment has been learned and other topics, such as development of professional judgment must become more important.

A Difficult Mentoring Assignment
Cross-level or cross-function mentoring IS inherently difficult, but may be especially challenging if the mentor is an employee who takes pride in a knowledge of the work assignment, but may be less aware of the other ways in which they can help others. They may feel frustrated to be a mentor whose strengths seem inappropriate to help someone else. Listen to what these cross-level mentors have said about this challenge.

  • “It’s very hard to be a mentor when your area of specialty is not the same as your protege’s. Do other mentors have this same problem too?”
  • “I have had trouble being as good a mentor as I wanted. I feel that I could help a lot more if I was in the same department as my protege.”
  • “My situation is some what unique since I’m not in his department. It makes it hard to know how to help when lots of his questions are about the work assignment in a functional area other than my own.”

Two Views Of Mentoring
New employees and other proteges facing new responsibilities will need a lot of help with the work assignment but what’s a mentor to do if one can’t supply the needed the work assignment assistance? The answer to this question depends a great deal on one’s view of the mentor’s role.

  1. Is a mentor supposed to be a know-it-all who models perfection as an experienced employee? If that is the case, the mentor may find it hard to admit an inadequate knowledge of the work assignment and to ask for the help of the other staff in the protege’s department who DO know the job functions. If a mentor is struggling with such a problem and does not seek the help of others, the mentor’s colleagues may guess the problem exists, receive an implicit message not to intrude, and may decide not to “intrude” on the mentoring. When this occurs, the mentoring pair may just end up doing the best they can to get along. Too bad.
  2. Another view of mentoring is that the mentor’s job is to show the protege that professionals are always learning, always seeking solutions to new problems, and always struggling to be their best. Such a mentor can realize that his strengths are never going to be perfectly matched to every situation and may find it easier to state a need for assistance and seek out colleagues who can help.

If the goal of peer assistance is to support learning and to find more effective ways to solve problems then it makes perfect sense for a mentor to introduce the protege to more people, each with different strengths to offer the protege. Together this “team of mentors” can provide the support for a protege which is required by the situation.

This approach to mentoring has other benefits as well, for it models the importance of collaboration and the synergy that is possible when a team works together.

What I am suggesting is that, in addition to developing another employee, another outcome of mentoring can be building a workplace where collaboration, collegial support, and openness to learning from each other is the norm. Mentors can help to create these types of workplaces by serving as brokers of the resources of the local site, helping the protege to connect with others, and finding the best ways to meet the needs of the protege with the support of a team, not just one person.

The ultimate goal of mentoring then is not JUST creating a mentoring relationship. It is also ensuring that the protege’s needs are effectively met, some how, some way.

Creating A Mentor Team

Given this concept of mentoring we can see that a cross-level or cross-function mentor has a responsibility to ensure that the work assignment information the protege needs is supplied by other staff if it cannot be provided by the mentor. Helping to arrange for this kind of support does more than assist the protege because the mentor has an opportunity, while asking for help, to model important values for our profession to non mentor program participants.

Even more positive outcomes can be created by a mentor who could talk to another colleague and say such things as:

  • “You know, I have always admired the way you (highlight the strength). I wonder if you would be willing to help me support (the protege) by sharing what you do and why you do it that way? I think that both of us could learn a lot from you in this area.”


  • “I am concerned that all of my friends here may feel that I have agreed to be a mentor because I somehow think I am better than others. Actually, I feel quite the opposite. I KNOW that my strengths are not sufficient to help (the protege) in all the necessary areas. In fact, I was thinking of asking you if you could help the protege) with (topic) because that is such a strength of yours and not such a strength of mine.”

A Message For All Mentors

Early in a mentoring relationship the mentor must ensure, one way or another, that the protege gets the necessary help in the work assignment. Effective mentors are also important for much more than teaching the work assignment to a protege because becoming an excellent employee is much more than learning a work assignment.

Whether you are a cross-level mentor or a mentor who has previously been in the same work assignment as the protege, eventually you will need to address other topics and to draw upon the other elements of your experience as an effective employee. All mentors have many other strengths besides content knowledge and skills and these other areas will need to become the focus of your mentoring efforts.

Here are some options for your on-going work as a mentor which have little to do with the work assignment and a lot to do with employee success. Share what you know about:

1. customer needs and how to help each one succeed and feel valued
2. planning well-sequenced personal professional learning experiences for one’s own growth & improvement
3. building credibility and respect with colleagues and supervisors
4. working effectively with the others in the local site, the customers, and the community
5. meeting the expectations of the supervisor
6. available resources in the local site, the organization, and the community
7. trying to live up to the time and work demands placed on us while maintaining a satisfying personal life
8. routines and time-saving hints which help an employee to keep from becoming buried in paper
9. career development strategies
10. strategies for staying current in one’s own field when time to learn is so short
11. other strategies for success?

A Peer Resource For Mentors

Whatever the challenges you face and have to master as mentor, new opportunities to learn and grow will keep popping up because your protege will continue to develop along with you. That means that, even when you find a successful mentoring approach to us, it may not remain the approach that is needed for very long. An important lesson we have learned is that you will find greater success as a mentor if you perceive mentoring as a team activity, not as a job for just one person. Use the diversity of the team in which you work to help you succeed as a mentor and your protege succeed too.

Sure, you have much to do as a mentor that only YOU CAN do, but you can also reach out to other mentors who are your colleagues and to your mentor program coordinator as well, and you can benefit from their experience. The support of these colleagues is essential for your own development as well because they are all sharing similar experiences to yours. If you can use each other as a support group and as an inquiry group into better mentoring and work practices, then you might find yourself writing such mentoring journal entries as those that follow. Good luck!

  • “The support group meeting was very stimulating. First, I realized that I am not the only mentor struggling with these problems. I also agree with your comment that what mentors are really doing is creating a new kind of staff leadership role, one that’s all about expertise, not just position and hierarchical power. No wonder it’s so challenging! We’re trying to change our profession! Thanks for helping us all believe that THAT is really possible.”
  • “I’m so relieved that we met last week. I was really beginning to feel that I was inadequate as a mentor. Now I see what others have done in this situation and I feel I have the ideas I need to go on to become more effective as a mentor. Thanks.”
  • “I guard my after work time jealously but I am glad I came to the mentor support group meeting last week. I remembered again why I wanted to be a mentor and I decided to try even harder. It’s not easy but it is SO important.”
  • “Thanks for inviting me to share my mentoring experience with the newer, less experienced mentors yesterday. I was glad to help them think about how important their modeling is as mentors. In preparing to meet with the new mentors I realized again how much I have grown as a professional since I became a mentor!”