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Part 2: The forgotten art of mentoring

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World Pipelines,

Understanding mentoring

The confusion with mentoring is often based on misconceptions; for example, mentoring is not:

  • Parenting (rearing children).
  • Managing (control and command: overseeing the work of others).
  • Coaching (focus on developing agreed skills).

Mentoring is a focus on the individual, where knowledge, guidance, and advice is passed onto staff, based on experience.

We normally associate mentoring with a very personal, trusting and caring relationship between a more experienced and/or more knowledgeable person, and a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The relationship is focused on the development of the less experienced/knowledgeable person. It can be a structured process, but does not need to be formal.

But mentoring is very difficult. The US Department of Labour noted that mentoring is the most complex type of human interaction. It is more complex than teaching, counselling, supervising or coaching, as it has to fulfil many functions within the mentoring relationship.

What is a mentor and mentoree?

The mentor is often described as a “trusted counsellor or teacher.” He/she needs to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise (more about wisdom later). The mentor may be older or may be younger, but they need to have a certain expertise that develops the mentoree, and have a greater wisdom.

The mentoree (the one who is being mentored) is sometimes called a protégé. The word protégé is from the French verb protogere, meaning to protect.

But few people can mentor, and the mentoring is not easy: “Effective mentoring can be learned, but not taught … most learn to mentor by experimenting and analysing success and failure, and many say the process of developing effective methods of mentoring takes years.”

Mentoring is nothing new

Historically, mentoring in business has its roots in the craftsman-apprenticeship relationship.

Mentoring was usually carried out within a management chain: you had a father as a line manager, and a grandfather as your manager’s manager. The grandfather was not directly involved with your line management. This meant that he/she could be a mentor. Today, this chain often does not exist.

Mentoring has become a big issue in business in the past 30 years. This is probably because it has been forgotten/stopped, but before books, computers, etc., it was the only way to transfer knowledge.

Mentoring involves transfer of knowledge

The mentor helps the mentoree gain some of his/her knowledge; therefore, it involves a transfer of knowledge. Knowledge is transferred from the mentor (the provider) to the mentoree (the seeker). In mentoring, this transfer is within a personal relationship agreed between provider and seeker. But, what is knowledge?


Knowledge is information in action:

  • Information is simply a collection or linkage of data that may form a conclusion following processing/organisation, and information can be easily stored and shared. Hence, information can be transferred easily by training.
  • Knowledge is what we know. Knowledge is based on data, information, and, experience: it can only be stored in the brain. Hence, mentoring is an excellent way to transfer knowledge.


Knowledge requires experience. The mentor uses his/her wisdom powers to facilitate this transfer. Wisdom is using your knowledge in a correct and intelligent manner. There is also little to be gained by being mentored by someone with the wrong values: a master locksmith or a safe-blower could mentor a young locksmith. Hence, wisdom requires more than experience. It also needs values. So, a mentor needs to be knowledgeable and wise.


Many companies believe they can manage and transfer knowledge by using their intranet, virtual communities, etc. These platforms are good for managing and distributing information, but not knowledge.

Knowledge can only be stored in the human brain; therefore, we need to focus on its transfer. Historically, knowledge has been transferred from one generation to another by storytelling: before schools, paper, radio, film, and the internet, storytelling was the only way to transfer knowledge of morality, etc.

Today, storytelling is still the best way to transfer knowledge and values mainly because all parties are engaged and can pause and ask for clarifications and perspectives.

The best stories focus on values: good ones, bad ones, and future values. The best knowledge transfer aims at inspiring the mentoree, with the mentor no longer telling everybody how brilliant he/she is.

Mentoring will mean listening to experienced staff. This can be good, but younger staff may have to listen to older staff, even when they go on and on. What should take 1 min., takes 45 mins. with older staff, but the wisdom will be within those timescales and worth the wait.

What about coaching?

Coaching is a one-to-one relationship, involving a series of conversations, just like mentoring. It may be confidential, but its main purpose is to identify opportunities for improved performance and practical ways forward. It is important “a coach is someone who intervenes and is designed to improve the performance of an individual in a specific task.”

This is different from a mentor: a mentor is a “critical friend, or guide who is responsible for overseeing the career and development of another person outside the normal manager/subordinate relationship.” Coaching has a fixed agenda, related to a task, with a clear outcome, usually short term, and focused on a competency. Mentoring does not have a fixed agenda, it is related to the development of an individual, without a variable outcome, is long-term, and focused on the individual.

Linking coaching, mentoring, and friendship

Many mentors and mentorees started in a ‘coaching’ relationship. The main purpose of coaching is to identify opportunities for improved performance. The chemistry was right, and this coaching can develop into mentoring. It is natural for this mentoring to go deeper, and for friendships to develop.

The reverse is also true: it is natural for coaching and mentoring relationships to end. Indeed, coaching and mentoring usually have a finite life: a time will come when the mentoree no longer needs the mentor, or the mentor no longer wants the mentoree.

Part 3 coming coon!

Written by Michelle Unger and Phil Hopkins, and edited from a published article by Stephanie Roker

To read the full version of this article with references, please download a copy of the December 2015 issue of World Pipelines.

Read the article online at:

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