The International Mentoring Association’s Mentoring Experts Answer Your most frequently asked Questions

Page Index

  1. What’s the difference between a quality mentoring program and an effective mentoring program?
  2. What is Mentoring?
  3. What is the best goal of mentoring?
  4. How is coaching different from mentoring? Do we do both?
  5. How are coaching and mentoring different from supervision?

1. What’s the difference between a “quality”  and an “effective” mentoring program?

You might be surprised to know that there are some critical distinctions. They are critical because they are fundamental to the way you improve your program and practices.

1. Quality is a condition that must exist relative to something else:

I am a better quality mentor than you. (Not a professional statement, however)

I am a quality mentor as measured against the standards for mentoring practice.

Our program is a quality program, as measured against mentoring program standards.

Given this definition, the effort to develop a higher quality mentoring program will need some mentoring program standards. The effort to promote quality mentoring requires standards of mentoring as a professional practice. This is an evolving picture. Nevertheless, a quality program is one that “has arrived,” not one that is “in process.”

2. Effectiveness also must exist relative to something else. In this case, that something else is a set of goals. In other words, a program is deemed effective if:

  • It is getting closer to its goals, or
  • It is successful in accomplishing its goals; that is, it does what it was designed to do.

This is helpful from the perspective of continually improving a program, sustaining the resources that support it, and accomplishing important and valued things. However, these distinctions are not as simple as they might seem.

For example: A program that has as its sole purpose to “orient new employees to their job,” may assign a mentor to help carry out that purpose.

If, later on, all new employees feel well oriented, it could then be said that this is an effective mentoring program.

In other words, the program has accomplished what it intended to do, regardless of whether it meets some standard for quality or not.

However, placed against a set of program standards, or compared to another program with additional purposes (such as the improvement of performance and results), the orientation program seems of less quality and to be less effective than those which accomplish more.

This suggests that there is a consensus that such peer support programs as mentoring and coaching should at least address improving productivity and results.

2.What is Mentoring?

The Range of Possibilities — Mentoring is an age-old method of supporting development that we find in business, education, and all areas of life, with adults and with youth. In most of the comments provided here, the context is a career or job focused one, suggesting that mentoring is for adults in professional settings. The reader should appreciate that all the advice given here directly translates to youth mentoring as well, though the specific language used may need adjustment for that setting.

With that understanding, mentoring can occur any time during a career, but especially when someone seeks to learn from someone else who has experience in the topic for learning.

Mentoring is three things at once:

  • It is a series of tasks that effective mentors must do to promote the professional development of others.
  • It is the intense, trusting, supportive, positive, confidential, low-risk relationship within which the partners can try new ways of working and relating, make mistakes, gain feed back, accept challenges, and learn in front of each other.
  • It is the complex, developmental process that mentors use to support and guide their protégé through the necessary career transitions that are a part of learning how to be an effective, reflective professional , and a career-long learner.

3. What is the Best Goal of Mentoring?

This concept of career-long learning means that people in pre-employment education and training, new employees in orientation and training (or induction), experienced employees, middle managers, and executives should all have mentors.

That list suggests that the goal is for everyone to be learning and working with a mentor. That is exactly what we are trying to define when we use the term “learning organization.” The fast-paced, competitive, and global nature of information flow, changes in business and other professional transactions, and new models for decision making require that we all be actively and continually learning. Such continual learning is not the norm, and so, it requires a high level of support to attain and sustain. That is why we all need to be mentored.

Who would be the mentor for all those people?

Just as we all need to be mentored so that we are continually learning, we all also need to be a mentor. That is necessary because of the high level of support needed to sustain continual, organization-wide learning and growth. It is also needed because the very best way to be a learner is to be a teacher, too. Anyone who has ever had to teach another person something knows that is when you really have to know and be able to do that thing well. We learn through teaching others.

In other words, we all need to be mentored and be mentors, if we are in a learning, continually improving organization that expects individual, continual performance improvement.

4. How is coaching different from mentoring?   Is it best to do both?

Coaching is the support for learning job-related skills that is provided by a colleague who uses observation; data collection; and descriptive, non-judgmental reporting on specific requested behaviors and technical skills. The coach also must use open-ended questions to help the other employee more objectively see his or her own patterns of behavior, and to prompt reflection, goal-setting, planning and action to increase the desired results.

Mentoring is the all-inclusive description of everything done to support protégé orientation and professional development. It includes creating the relationship, emotional safety, and the cultural norms needed for risk taking for the sake of learning, and the desired result of accelerated professional growth.

Coaching is ONE of the strategies that mentors must learn and effectively use to increase their protégés’ job skills. Therefore, we need both to maximize employee learning. Read the next item below for more on this.

5. How are coaching and mentoring different from supervision?

Supervision is the process of employee development, management, and evaluation that is used by a boss. People can grow as a result of supervision, at least to the point that the possibility of losing one’s job is a motivation for growth. Learning in a supervisory situation is often a very high risk circumstance. If employees share their weaknesses or needs with a supervisor, they risk poor evaluations and dismissal. That is why supervision often is not very effective. The risk-taking needed for learning and growth are not likely to occur.

Very progressive managers, who are also effective leaders, can be somewhat more successful in prompting professional growth in their employees, but leadership requires “followership.” Leadership implies an “attracting” or “pulling” influence, and followership suggests that employees are drawn toward something, but have some degree of choice as to whether they follow the leader and whether they grow or not. Anyone who has tried to lead others knows just how true that is. Marilyn Ferguson states it so well: “The gate to change is locked on the inside.”

High Impact Mentoring and Coaching is designed to be very separate from supervision. This approach to mentoring and coaching frames the mentor/coach as a highly effective leader WORTH following. In other words, “High Impact” mentors and coaches are MODELS and MAGNETS of best practices, increased performance, and greater results. People are attracted to them.

Also, this concept includes explicitly understanding that the employee who works with a mentor or a coach must choose:

1. To defer to the greater experience of a mentor
2. To learn through others experiences and mistakes and avoid learning by trial and error
3. To take the risks of discussing their own weaknesses and needs and of learning in front of someone more senior

Choosing to act that way takes a very special circumstance and relationship, and that is why mentoring and coaching must NOT overlap evaluation and supervision. Certainly, supervisors MUST be trained and expected to also act as mentors and coaches. Those skills will improve their ability as supervisors and the results of their supervision. However, non-supervisory relationships between mentors/coaches and the employees who are their protégés are needed also if we expect to dramatically accelerate learning and performance within our organizations.