Mentorship Definition

What is mentorship? The simplest way to define mentorship is to think about it in its most usual form – a helping relationship in which one person, usually more experienced or senior, takes time to assist the career, professional or personal development of someone else, who is known as a mentee, mentoree, or protégé. Mentorships are most often a one-to-one relationship but is sometimes conducted in groups.

A mentoring relationship is one that is built on trust, in which there is an exchange of knowledge, experience and goodwill. In developmental mentorships, the focus is on the development of the mentee’s capacity, rather than just the handing down of advice or solutions. It’s like the proverb, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for an entire lifetime”. In developmental mentorships, the mentee builds their ability to navigate new waters, with the help of the mentor. And the mentor often learns a great deal from the mentee in return. So the relationship is very much two-way.

Peer Mentorships

Peer mentorships often consist of two people who are at the same career stage or of a similar age, in which one person has more experience than the other in a particular domain and can provide support, knowledge and skills transfer. Peer mentorships may be a one-to-one relationship or experienced in a group setting. The exchange is usually mutual, even if one member of the dyad begins in the traditional role of mentee, or learner, and the other in the role of mentor. For example, a newcomer to a company or industry may start off as the learner, but as the relationship develops, the person discovers that they too have something to offer in terms of other experience. The relationship then develops into an environment for co-learning.

Like any form of mentorship, there are advantages and disadvantages. In conventional mentorships, the mentor is more experienced, may be perceived as substantially more ‘senior’ in the profession or industry. This can create a power differential between mentor and mentee, which can inhibit development of rapport, especially in the early stages. Peer mentorships overcome the hierarchical gap. In conventional mentoring relationships, the exchange is more one-way (even though mentors benefit), in peer mentorships the balance is more even. Peer mentorships may be more accessible to potential mentees simply because there are more peers available than experienced mentors.

Sponsorship vs Mentorship

Various studies have demonstrated conclusively that sponsorship and mentorships are different, largely incompatible relationships [1]. Attempting to combine them leads to reduced impact in terms of both career and personal developmental outcomes for a number of reasons, including:

  • Mentees are less open and authentic, because they want the sponsor-mentor to present them to others at their best
  • There is increased expectation of reciprocal favours — for example, the sponsor-mentor may demand “political” information about the sponsee-mentee’s boss
  • The sponsee-mentee may feel disempowered by handing over responsibility for their reputation and advancement.

These problems may be exacerbated in the context of gender, where the power dynamics of the relationship may reinforce stereotypes that undermine aspirations and expectations of self-efficacy [2]. The bottom line is that sponsorship can be a very useful tool in talent management, but it needs active oversight by HR and the leadership team. To explore this topic further, view our webinar on Sponsorship vs Mentorship.

Strategic Mentorships

Strategic mentoring, for us, takes a purpose-led approach to design and implementation of organizational mentorship initiatives. Companies that follow this approach often have several mentorship programs on offer, with a blend of formal and informal offerings. We know that where formal mentorship programs have been implemented, informal mentorships flourish, because there is a pool of trained mentors who reach out to others for potential mentorship. Many recipients of mentoring go on to become mentors in formal programs and mentor informally as well. Formal, cohort-based programs play an important role in training and preparing people for effective mentoring relationships that can emerge organically without any administrative effort.

There are 5 process steps involved in strategic mentorships:

  1. Planning. Setting goals for the company’s mentorship strategy, in much the same way that planning would be done for any business strategy. For example, good marketing needs a well-planned marketing strategy before implementation of marketing plans and tactics.
  2. Analysis. Gathering data on what employees might expect or want from a mentorship program. What do other similar companies or competitors offer? Sometimes a well-regarded mentorship program contributes strongly to the value of the employer brand. What form of mentoring would work best for this company?
  3. Development. Design of one or more mentorship programs that, together, will deliver on the goals.
  4. Implementation. Execution of pilot mentorship initiatives to test the design.
  5. Evaluation. Measurement of outcomes and particularly return-on-investment. We have written extensively on this topic.

How to start a Mentorship Program

Starting a mentorship program isn’t rocket science but there’s certainly an art to it. Pre-Evaluation and research are paramount to the success of any business mentorship program. It’s a good idea for a Program Manager to ensure that their company understands what mentoring is and how it might solve a particular problem or contribute to a particular business goal. For companies, the purpose is often to support high performers, or to improve engagement. For membership organizations, mentoring may be used as a member retention strategy, or to develop emerging leaders in the profession or industry.

Once you have a good idea of why you want to introduce a business mentorship program, check that your company is ready and tighten up how you will talk about your program. We highly recommend you take a look at our white paper The Ripple Effect, which will help you dive into the world of evidence-based methodologies on how to implement programs.

Interested in understanding more about how to start a mentorship program? Download our 7 Steps to Starting a Successful Mentoring Program eBook. 

[1] Bhide, V and Tootell, B (2018) Perceptions of sponsoring as a career advancement tool for women: Are they different in Europe? International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2018, 16 (1), DOI: 10.24384/000467
[2] David Clutterbuck, David Clutterbuck Partnerships 2018

©Art of Mentoring 2022


A guide to unleashing the hidden value in your organisation through high impact strategic mentoring programs.

Most human beings and organisations have one thing in common – they both want to do better. But it’s hard for one to achieve without the other. When you can harness both you can achieve great things.

Unfortunately, most organisational structures are hierarchical, which may aid efficiency but not necessarily “real” human interaction.

Solving the human equation is the cornerstone of great culture and the larger and more diverse the workforce, the more challenging it becomes, even before we factor in things like location, technology and pay rates.

Well designed and managed mentoring programs can have a dramatic impact on workplace culture and people engagement. A strategic mentoring program transcends hierarchy, creating relationships and interactions to build individual and hence organisational value.

In this guide we present you with proven practical insights on how to design, build, implement and automate a high influence mentoring program and create your own ripple effect.

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the ripple effect