What is mentoring? Define the power of helping others develop.

Mentoring Defined
In this series on mentors it is proper to offer a brief description about what I mean when I use the word “mentor.”  What do I mean by the word mentor?

Mentoring is a multidimensional relationship where a mentor and a mentee work together to make specific, mutually defined goals that focus on developing the mentee’s skills, abilities, knowledge and thinking. (Zachary)

Mentoring is a relationship between two people, usually a senior and a junior employee, whereby the senior employee teaches the junior employee about his/her job, introduces the junior to contacts, orients the junior employee to the industry and organization and addresses social or personal issues that arise on the job. (Allen, Finkelstein, Poteet)

Mentoring is to serve as a catalyst in drawing out the potential that God has given to His people and to give people what they need for the work of ministry that God has given them. (Fukuda)

Mentoring is a relational process, in which someone who knows something (the mentor), transfers that something (empowerment and resources such as wisdom, advice, information, emotional support, protection, linking to resources, career guidance, status) to someone else (the mentee) at a sensitive time so that it impacts development.  (Clinton)

Mentoring is a relationship between two individuals that allows individuals to address concerns about self, career, and family by providing opportunities to gain knowledge, skills, and competence and to address personal and professional dilemmas. (Kram)

Mentoring is a kind of sacred archetype, a capacity to illuminate a role of often-hidden yet rare power in the drama of human development. (Daloz)

Definitions offer a helpful howbeit incomplete definition. What is the activity of mentoring?  In some cases mentoring takes place even when there is no direct relationship between a mentor and a mentee.  This is important to understand particularly as a busy executive or leader experienced in the tension between developing leaders around you and meeting the demands of the organization.  From the definitions above several observations are important to identify. Mentoring is:

  1. Relational/personal/intimate – assumes that one of the two has the degree of emotional intelligence needed to endure immaturity because of the potential seen in another person.
  2. Intentional – because of his or her experience the mentor sees what is needed to succeed in the larger context, the mentee sees what is needed in the immediate context.  This reciprocal agenda is characteristic of adult learning styles.
  3. Empowering – the result of this relationship is that the mentee is empowered in their capacity of accomplishment and being.
  4. Opportune – these points of empowerment are fitting to specific periods of development. Mentoring needs change with time and the developmental stages of the mentee.  This relates back to the dynamic character of the mentoring relationship.

Functional Categories To expand the definition of mentoring toward actionable strategies researchers identify a variety of distinct mentoring functions that also occur in a continuum of involvement indicating more deliberate to less deliberate or more intensive to less intensive personal involvement. All researchers essentially start with the mentoring types identified by either Kathy E. Kram or J. Robert Clinton to define the activity of mentoring and its empowering function toward the mentee.  The Table 1 below identifies their respective lists of mentoring types.

Table 1: Mentoring Functions Identified


Clinton and Clinton[2]

Exposure & visibility




Challenging assignments

Role modeling

Acceptance – confirmation






Contemporary model


Historical model

Divine contact

Spiritual guide


Notice the similarities and the differences in the two lists. Clinton and Clinton write from a faith-based perspective used in many Christian organizations and congregations.  Kram writes from a business perspective familiar with the demands of a global enterprise. Kram further differentiates her list by identifying career and psychosocial functions thus paying attention to a holistic development in leadership i.e., the reality that without solid social skills great technicians make lousy leaders.[3]

  • Career: those aspects of relationship that enhance career advancement.
  • Psychosocial: shoes aspects of the relationship that enhance sense of competence, identity, and effectiveness in a professional role.

Clinton and Clinton further differentiate their list by identifying a continuum of involvement in terms of the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of effort.  Clinton differentiates these three aspects of the continuum based on the dynamics involved that determine the depth and awareness of the effort involved.[4]

  • Active mentoring: implies that both the mentor and the mentee must be active in their respective responsibilities inherent in the dynamics i.e., attraction, relationship, responsiveness, accountability, empowerment.
  • Occasional mentoring: implies that the degree of involvement needed is less intensive than active mentoring and that the dynamics involved include attraction, responsiveness and empowerment but not necessarily relationship and accountability.
  • Passive mentoring: implies the least intensive involvement of the mentoring types where the dynamics include attraction, responsiveness and empowerment but are devoid of relationship.  Accountability may or may not be a part of these functions.

I synthesize the models of Kram and Clinton in my work in developing leaders cf. Table 2.

Table 2: Wheeler’s Synthesis of Mentoring Functions


Active mentoring

Occasional mentoring

Passive mentoring

Career Functions

Coaching – skills, insight to informal and political processes

Trainer – knowledge and its application

Exposure & visibility – preparation for greater responsibility

Protection – reduction of unnecessary risks or criticism

Sponsorship – opportunity for advancement

Challenging assignments – development of technical or managerial skills

Psychosocial Functions

Discipler – habits, spiritual formation

Counseling – advice on personal concerns

Role model – values identification & clarification

Friendship – a sounding board, perspective

Acceptance & confirmation – self-differentiation in a relationship in which conflict is safe

Divine contact – guidance in decisions

It is important as a mentor to differentiate between the functions and types of mentoring for several reasons:

  1. Identify your own strengths as a mentor and focus on those mentee relationships or encounters that you can leverage best for the mentee’s development.  Passive mentoring functions show that direct long-term personal involvement is not a prerequisite to every mentoring action.   This is important particularly for those leaders whose scope of responsibility is large thus cutting down on the amount of time available for hands-on mentoring assignments.
  2. Identify the time constraints required in the functions and types of mentoring activity.  Leadership development is the first order of task for a leader – however highly effective leaders already have full schedules.  Awareness of one’s mentoring style and the amount of time demand inherent in the functions and types of mentoring activity allow the leader to sequence their involvement in the lives of emerging and established leaders.
  3. Conduct a mentoring function analysis of available mentoring functions within your organization.  Determine whether the organization possessed the mentoring bandwidth to effectively develop leaders at all levels of the organization or if it needs outside assistance.
  4. Conduct a mentee need analysis to decide what types of mentoring activity an emergent or an incumbent leader needs to help them through a boundary period in their development.

Conclusion Mentoring often takes place without the official titles of mentor and mentee.  Any time informal training takes place (that is training outside the classroom or outside the training room) a mentoring function transpires. The definitions above outline the advantages of formalizing definitions of mentoring.  It is obvious in the research literature that those organizations that commit to developing a highly functional mentoring culture show a higher degree of success in reproducing leaders.  Where organizations fail to give a high degree of facilitation and oversight mentoring occurs far less often and with much fewer results. Mentoring contributes to employee retention and a higher quality of leadership interaction in organizations that develop mentoring programs.  As will be clear in the next article, effective mentoring – such as that modeled by Jethro and Moses in the earlier article, http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/7-tools-mentors-use-to-affirm-effective-leadership/, is particularly important during times of organizational transition. Dollar for dollar the use of mentoring in any organization shows a much higher return than any other form of employee development because mentoring is (1) just in time input based on the learning needs and style of the employee; (2) mentoring requires far fewer resources than any other form of training and (3) mentoring adapts to market conditions faster than any other form of training.

[1] Kathy E. Kram. Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 23.
[2] J. Robert Clinton and Richard W. Clinton. The Mentoring Handbook: Detailed Guidelines and Helps for Christian Mentors and Mentorees (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1991), 2-24.
[3] Kram, 23.
[4] Clinton & Clinton, 2-24.

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