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When is it Mentoring?

Have you met people who are confused about what mentoring actually is? What distinguishes “mentoring” from other kinds of assistance?

Mentoring can be defined in at least two ways: one by mentors’ behaviors and the other by how the mentee perceives what’s going on.

1) Designated Mentor Behaviors with Intent = Mentoring

In formal/structured or informal mentoring relationships, “mentoring” is the intentional helping that the mentors do. As observers, we can see the mentors purposely performing various actions aimed at helping the mentees reach goals and build competencies. For example, the mentors spend extra effort listening attentively, explaining concepts, inspiring, sharing their own life experiences, making phone calls on the mentee's behalf, arranging observations of people, loaning materials, editing the mentee's documents, coaching on tasks and projects, providing positive and corrective feedback, protecting, and giving other assistance. As opposed to coaching, mentoring usually focuses on long-term development of several areas of a mentee’s life.

If the mentors are providing these types of help, we usually say that mentoring is going on, although we’re making an assumption that the mentee is actually receiving and gaining from the help. If we measure gains made by the mentees and can attribute the gains to what the mentors did, we say more confidently that mentoring occurred.

2) Perceived Mentoring = Mentoring

With the second definition, “mentoring” is defined by mentees. In a sense, mentoring is in the eyes of the mentored.

When asked to recall past mentors, some people can’t remember anyone who fits that title. Others easily name a dozen “mentors” who helped them develop. Very often the same behavior by a mentor is perceived as mentoring or not mentoring by two different mentees. What’s going on here?

People have different perceptions of whether or not and how they are helped by others. Many people define the help they receive (even when quite limited) as mentoring and call those helpers mentors. You or I may or may not define the assistance in this way, but to these “mentees” this is what occurred, and they’re happy with it.

Others who receive a great deal of assistance either don’t recognize it or don’t choose to call it mentoring. Similarly, people have different perceptions of whether and how they’ve mentored others. For example, you may help people all the time with their lives, and not consider it mentoring. Or you skillfully perform all the intentional mentor behaviors mentioned above and try your best to help another but aren’t named or accepted by that person as a mentor and your help isn’t thought of as mentoring.

So What?

Potential mentees (and even potential mentors) are falling through the cracks because they don’t know what mentoring is and how to make use of it.
Have you ever thought back and realized that someone was trying to help you succeed, and you didn’t even realize it at the time? You missed an incredible opportunity despite the person’s efforts to mentor you. Or have you watched someone who doesn’t know how to take advantage of valuable development opportunities coming his/her way?

As a potential mentee, you can increase the amount and quality of mentoring in your life. You can start recognizing attempted actions of intended mentors. Recognizing help as mentoring is an important skill. It enables you to pull learning from a variety of situations and people. As Morgan McCall says in High Flyers, creating learning experiences (even when the situation or teacher isn’t ideal) is one of the most important abilities to develop. You can decide to embrace that help, politely turn it down, or help the mentors shape their actions so the mentoring is even more useful to you. You can show gratitude for the generosity of mentors. In turn, they’ll probably increase the mentoring they do for you and others.

As a potential mentor, you can intentionally perform more mentoring actions with more and more people. Even if you’re not called a mentor per se, your “mentoring” will be willingly received by many and sometimes recognized and valued in retrospect by others. You can also start teaching others in your circle of influence to know what mentoring is and to give, recognize, seek out, and appreciate effective mentoring in all its forms.

Please join us in making mentoring not only a household word but a natural, expected set of behaviors we all give and receive on a daily basis.

When Is it Mentoring?
Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones

13560 Mesa Drive, Grass Valley, CA 95949, USA
Phone: 530.268.1146 Fax: 530.268.3636 e-mail:
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