The Mentoring Relationship Spectrum

By COL Dr. Mark A. Melanson,  US Army



In a traditional mentoring relationship, the mentor guides the protégé and shares wisdom gained from his or her own career. Each mentoring relationship is unique, a direct result of the individual personalities of the two participants. While some mentoring relationships are very brief, perhaps only the duration of a project, others can last an entire career, or even longer.

The purpose of this paper is to present a model, the Mentoring Spectrum, to describe the broad range of mentoring relationships that can exist between a mentor and a protégé. It starts with the simplest relationship, the Role Model, and continues with
deeper and more complex relationships until it reaches the epitome of mentorship, the Counselor. By understanding the continuum of mentoring relationships, mentors and protégés can better utilize the various options for mentoring partnerships that are available to them.


The Role Model is the first type of mentoring relationship in the Mentoring Spectrum and is the simplest. In this relationship, the senior person serves as an example for the junior person to follow. By observing the mentor, the protégé learns what is proper and effective personal and professional behavior.

While this form of mentoring relationship is more passive than the others that will be described, it is still an active form of mentoring. In some cases, the mentor may not even know that an individual is influenced and modeling their pattern of behavior after the mentor’s. Sometimes, the seasoned leader knows that he or she is being watched and could be serving as a role model that others might follow. So, senior persons need to remember that they are always “on stage” and are potentially mentoring through their daily “performances.”


Unlike the Role Model, the Preceptor is a much more active and engaged form of mentoring. The term preceptor is borrowed from examples in medicine, where a new physician is paired with a more experienced clinician who serves as a teacher and is expected to instruct the neophyte on what he or she needs to know and do clinically. Therefore, this type of mentoring relationship usually occurs in the early phases of a junior person’s career.

In the case of the Preceptor, both the mentor and the protégé are aware of each other and their relationship. The mentoring focus is strictly technical and focused on the development of specific skills. Typically, the relationship only lasts until the protégé
has mastered the requisite skills and has therefore, completed the preceptorship. However, in some cases, a bond may be formed that can blossom into a deeper mentoring relationship. I know this was true for me; my longtime mentor started out by teaching me how to perform physics testing of medical x-ray systems when I was a brand new second lieutenant in the Army. But his genuine interest in my technical development and the rapport that developed between us set the stage for the growth of a much deeper mentoring relationship that continues to this day.


The next role in the Mentoring Spectrum is the Coach. Unlike the Preceptor, the Coach is focused on the overall job performance of the protégé, not just the mastery of an individual task or skill. Coaches are concerned with mission accomplishment and how the protégé functions within the unit or organization. Supervisors typically mentor their subordinates by being Coaches.

Since the mentoring focus is on job performance (and the Coach may also be personally
accountable for the success or failure of the protégé), there may be some limitations to the depth of this relationship. For example, the protégé may be reluctant to share doubts or weaknesses with the mentor for fear of receiving a bad rating. Also, if the mentor supervises more than one person, the cautious mentor might be concerned about the appearance of favoritism by providing more mentoring to one subordinate over another. As a result, the level of trust between mentor and protégé may be limited when the mentoring relationship is one of coaching.


While an Advisor is also concerned with protégé job performance,
this mentor is also focused on the junior person’s career and professional development.
Hence, the Advisor often becomes involved in issues such as future assignments
and pursuing advanced training or education. Career or specialty consultants
usually have an Advisor-like mentoring relationship with the junior persons
in their Area of Concentration (AOC). Hence, these mentors also delve into more
personal matters, such as family issues pertaining to a proposed permanent change
of location, such as a family with a child in the senior year of high school
or a new baby on the way. However, since the senior person can literally holds
the protégé’s career in the palm of his or her hand, the wary
protégé may be reluctant to share everything with the Advisor,
such as doubts about continuing a career or thoughts about transferring to another


After sufficient trust has developed between the mentor and protégé,
then the mentoring relationship can deepen and the mentor can become a Confidant.
The Confidant is more trusted and fully capable of dealing with personal issues
that the protégé may have. Since the protégé deeply
trusts the mentor, he or she is not reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such
as personality conflicts with other senior persons or dissatisfaction with other
leaders. For the protégé, the Confidant serves as a sounding board
for ideas and helps the protégé to brainstorm solutions to problems
of both a personal and professional nature.


The Counselor is the pinnacle of the mentoring spectrum and is the fullest and
deepest expression of the mentoring relationship. He or she is an avatar of
the personae Mentor, in Homer’s Odyssey. With a Counselor, a protégé
can discuss any topic and will seek guidance from the mentor in either personal
or professional matters. As a result, the Counselor remains an enduring influence
on the protégé and the relationship can last for decades. It is
important to note that it normally takes a long time to reach this depth of
mentoring. In my case, it took approximately ten years before my mentoring relationship
deepened to the level where my mentor became my Counselor.


The previous discussion outlined the six different mentoring relationships that
can exist between mentors and protégés. The figure below shows
these relationships as a part of the Mentoring Spectrum. In this figure, the
x-axis is labeled as “Trust” (referring to the protégé’s
trust) and the y-axis is labeled as “Influence” (or the mentor’s
influence). As the graph depicts, as a protégé’s trust increases,
so does the mentor’s influence. So, a Counselor has more trust and more influence
than a Confidant, who has more trust and more influence than an Advisor, etc.

Within the graph there
is a dividing line near the center. To left of this dividing line is a region
labeled as “Professional Trust” and to the right of this dividing
line is a region labeled as “Personal Trust.” This line reflects
the transition from a protégé only sharing work or career related
issues to ultimately opening up and including personal matters. In most cases,
this transition tends to occur at the point when a mentor becomes an Advisor,
although the actual transition point will vary for each individual mentor –
protégé pair.


The purpose of this paper was to discuss the Mentoring Spectrum, a model which
helps to explain the various mentoring relationships that can occur between
a mentor and a protégé. First, a mentor can be a Role Model, setting
the example for known and unknown protégés alike. Next, a mentor
can become a Preceptor and teach the protégé a specific skill
or task. When mentors are Coaches, they are focused on improving the overall
quality of duty performance and may also have a personal stake in the protégé’s
success. As an Advisor, a mentor has a longer perspective in mind and guides
the protégé towards career development and professional growth.
After personal trust is earned, a mentor can become a Confidant and be a sounding
board for more sensitive and personal matters. Finally, a mentor can reach the
summit of mentoring and become a Counselor, providing the entire range of guidance
typically associated with the mentor archetype.

As the Mentoring Spectrum
illustrates, when the mentor gains more and more trust, he or she has more and
more influence over the protégé, to include ultimately matters
of a highly personal nature. It is hoped that by understanding these different
mentoring relationships, mentors and protégé can understand where
their relationship is at any point and can also select the type of partnership
that is the best fit for them.