Introduction to Mentoring Styles

By Barry Sweeny, 2003


The TWO Elements of a Mentoring Style: Balance & Flexibility

Each person has a “style” which they have developed. Your style is a mix of natural tendencies toward certain approaches to life and of approaches which you have learned and adopted to make human relationships both more productive and more comfortable. Life experiences “teach” us that we need to strike a balance between being “task-oriented” and “relationship oriented”. Exactly HOW YOU have individually settled this issue and struck a balance is your personal style.

Each mentor has a personal style as well, and it significantly effects how (s)he will behave as a mentor. Part of the mentor’s style is his/her ability to adapt their natural responses when the situation requires something other than their natural “style”. In that sense, an important part of our style is our “style flexibility” and our ability to recognize WHEN we need to be more flexible and adjust our style. When a person is not very flexible and may not even realize that they need to change their approach, we describe them as “rigid”. Mentors and protégés need to be flexible.

The Potential for Growth & for Problems

I say that because, as the protégé learns, incorporates new practices, and applies that learning to work, (s)he becomes more professionally aware, mature, and sophisticated. The mentoring process is developmental because protégés are developing persons and ever changing and evolving. Interestingly, when mentors are inflexible, their natural mentoring style may be just what is needed at some steps in the process, because their natural style is appropriate to the protégé’s current level of need and development. But as the protégé develops, the mentor’s style will need to shift if the mentor’s assistance is to remain appropriate to the new needs and level of maturity of the protégé. Therein lies the mentor’s opportunities to facilitate greatly accelerated professional growth, AND sadly, therein lies the potential for problems.

The Role of Mentor Training & Mentoring Styles

As the reader can see, the issue of the mentor’s style and style flexibility are very important to the success of the mentoring process and pair. That is why this author has made discovery and mastery of mentoring styles so crucial an element in the mentor training he leads. The focus is to increase the mentor’s style awareness and flexibility.

I use a customized Mentoring Styles Self-Assessment to help mentors see their natural strengths and tendencies as mentors and to gain insights into their ability to flexibly adjust how they approach mentoring to remain appropriate and helpful. The result of doing that assessment is a set of 1-2 mentoring growth goals. The assessment shows mentors exactly what they need to do more often or to stay sensitive to when they need to do something. It also helps mentors to know when they may do something too often or too strongly and may need to be cautious not to take to an extreme, what may be a very good quality.

There are four mentor styles and ALL 4 are fine IF the mentor’s timing is right.

There are four mentoring styles which align to the four stages of the mentoring process. ALL FOUR mentoring styles are needed at some point in that process. This means that styles are not right or wrong in themselves, but only right if the mentor does them when they are needed by the protégé, and only wrong if the mentor asserts a particular style at an inappropriate time. This occurs when a mentor’s style or tendency is one approach, which may work well at some points in the process, but which may be inappropriate to the portage’s needs at other times as the protégé grows.

Here is how mentoring styles SHOULD work.

Initially, the mentor & protégé work together, at the same time as they explore each others’ experiences and view points. From these initial activities, mentors can begin to place a protégé somewhere on a developmental continuum. The location on that continuum suggests potential strengths, prior knowledge, and areas remaining for learning and growth. Given that assessment, a mentor can accurately predict a protégé’s needs and then choose appropriate activities & an appropriate mentoring style to use to address those needs.

The four mentoring styles form the fundamental elements of the mentoring process. (See the page elsewhere on the Mentoring Process for more details related to mentoring styles in use.) This Mentoring Process framework is a “generic” agenda on which the mentor can rely when there is no specific need that YOU can specifically identify as a focus for mentoring assistance. This framework helps mentors check the appropriateness of their actions, monitor protégé development, encourage increased protégé responsibility and ownership, and to plan later shifts in their mentoring style.


THAT’S the THEORY. Whether any mentor in your program understands and has even tried to mastered these ideas is a very good question. This suggests that when there are mentor-protege relationship problems, there is a very good chance the problem is a lack of mentor training, or at least training in mentoring styles was lacking. In that case, it is a program problem, not a bad mentor or unresponsive protege.