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What is mentoring?

Definitions and roles

"The term 'mentor' has a dictionary definition of “experienced and trusted adviser." 
(Gower Handbook of Training and Development)

"A mentor must be prepared to be coach, tutor, counsellor, confidant, objective observer, role model and friend. The role of a mentor requires: strong communication skills and the ability to lead and develop the mentoring relationship, constantly checking for understanding and satisfaction; effective listening skills and knowing which questions to ask and when; counselling skills with the right balance of empathy and objectivity and the ability to encourage mentees to make their own decisions; patience and enthusiasm, responding in a balanced and positive way to the needs of mentees and the ability to relate to their problems; a sense of realism about what is possible and desirable both in terms of the mentoring relationship and the mentee's career development" (Guinness plc, Mentoring guidelines)

Activities which occur in a mentoring relationship


  • "Coaching essentially involves some specific and planned activity designed to improve the skilled performance of another. It is about helping someone to 'grow'." 
(Gower Handbook of Training and Development)
  • "Coaching is providing ongoing information to employees about their performance, Coaching includes:giving recognition to encourage and to reward good performance; providing corrective feedback to change performance that needs to be improved"
  • "Coaching is one of the most important management skills for improving performance results and for motivating employees." 
(IPM, Coaching for Performance Excellence)


  • "Counselling is a relationship in which one person helps another to help himself and it is the most important and effective skill a mentor can have. ... Counselling is a process whereby the focus of concern is on the trainee's personal development and it succeeds when the trainee achieves competency." 
(Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Guide to Mentoring)


  • "Corrective feedback identifies what needs to be improved, why improving is' important and how to improve. ... (It should be) developmental rather than remedial. ... Everyone benefits from ongoing (feedback). It is not reserved for poor performers." 
(IPM, Coaching for Performance Excellence)

Benefits for trainees:

  • "(Mentoring establishes) the need for continual self-improvement towards a goal of professionalism." 
(Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Guide to Mentoring)
  • "(Trainees gain) insight into (their) work style habits and the merits of a more planned approach." 
(AGCAS Mentoring Pilot Scheme - Mentoring and Professional Development)
  • "Mentoring is a process which enables an individual to become operationally effective sooner and with a clearer sense of .. purpose."
  • "Mentoring is an integral building block in the process of self-managed development."
  • "Mentoring offers the mentee: 
- improved self-confidence; 
- improved job satisfaction; 
- understanding of their own make-up, in terms of personality, capability, aspirations and skills; 
- (the opportunity) to develop a plan to move towards a personal goal." 
(Guinness pie, Mentoring guidelines)

    Benefits for mentors
  • "Mentoring ... offers benefits not only to the trainee, but also to the mentor and their organisation as it is a means of establishing and developing relationships between qualified and trainee (practitioners)." 
(Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Guide to Mentoring)
  • "Mentoring should lead to: 
Improved job satisfaction. This will stem from developing people within the organisation, widening the mentor's area of interest and opening up new networks. 
- peer group recognition. Mentoring offers demonstrable evidence of responsibility and positive perception by colleagues. 
The opportunity to enhance management skills." 
(Guinness plc, Mentoring guidelines)

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Mentoring in an organisatonal context

A case study of how mentoring works in the Association of Graduate Careers Services (AGCAS)A case study of how mentoring works in the Association of Graduate Careers Services (AGCAS)
Mentoring in AGCAS

What is Mentoring?

Mentoring has been described in various ways by different organisations and different authors. There are however many common themes in these descriptions:

  • Most will describe the mentor as ‘experienced’ and a few will include the idea of the mentor being more ‘senior’ in the hierarchy.
  • Most include some description of what the mentor will do, such as provide advice, act as a counsellor, be a role model and/or provide support. Others include ‘befriending’ ‘championing’ or ‘introducing’ their mentee.
  • Most comment on essential aspects of the relationship such as the existence of ‘trust’, ‘mutual respect’, ‘agreed boundaries’.
  • Finally attention is given to the process and outcomes of the relationship such helping the mentee move from ‘dependence and inexperience through to maturity and professional independence’ or ‘enabling an individual to become operationally effective sooner’ or more generally ‘helping the mentee to move toward a goal’.

Within AGCAS, we have chosen to include many of these aspects but to exclude others. Our description of the role we are encouraging is as follows:

Mentoring in AGCAS is an informal and supportive relationship, outside of any formal hierarchy, whereby an experienced person helps a colleague learn to carry out their job, or a particular task or complete an assignment, by providing guidance, counselling, support and advice.

The AGCAS Mentoring Scheme

Mentoring in the AGCAS context started as an optional form of support for registrants on the Certificate and Diploma qualification courses that we run in conjunction with the University of Reading. This still accounts for the largest proportion of mentoring relationships. However we are happy to extend this and will do our best to help establish mentoring relationships for new Heads of Service and for those undertaking other specialist roles or projects.

Who are the Mentors?

Mentors are experienced members of AGCAS who have volunteered for the role. Generally they will have:

  • first hand experience of the role or task for which they are mentors thus most qualification module mentors have actually completed that module;
  • an interest in professional development, some also being AGCAS trainers;
  • have attended a Mentoring and Coaching Training day.

In the majority of cases, the mentor and the mentee are from different careers services. It is not recommended that the mentor should have any line management responsibility for the mentee.

What do AGCAS Mentors do?

Mentors will help their mentee in the following ways:

  • Helping to set learning objectives and/or goals
  • Listening to the mentee and acting as a sounding board
  • Providing constructive feedback
  • Suggesting appropriate sources of information and/or contacts in and outside of AGCAS
  • Facilitating problem solving by the mentee
  • Encouraging, supporting, recognising progress and development and assisting in the transfer of learning to new situations

What a Mentor does not do:

  • Report on the progress of a mentee to any third party
  • Do the task, or undertake the role on behalf of the mentee
  • Provide unlimited time and support

What are the benefits of Mentoring?

For the Mentee:

  • Moral support under pressure
  • Access to their mentors wider experience, knowledge and contacts
  • An objective perspective
  • A better understanding of the learning process and their own learning style
  • Increased awareness of their progress and development

For the Mentor:

  • Satisfaction from contributing to the development of a colleague
  • A fresh interest and insight into professional issues
  • An enhancement of their own knowledge and skills
  • Recognition of their professional standing

Finding a Mentor

There are several ways in which mentoring relationships are set up within AGCAS. These include:

  • Informally – the mentee approaches a person with whom they feel comfortable and who they feel will have the experience to help them, and asks them to be their mentor. This probably accounts for about 40% of the mentoring relationships established and can be an extremely effective method.
  • Formally – The AGCAS Training Development Manager maintains lists of those who have attended Mentoring Training days plus experienced members who are willing to take on this role. The TDM will try to locate a suitable mentor when requested. Generally two or three names will be supplied and it is then up to the mentee to make initial contact and chose an mentor appropriate to their needs.
  • Recommended – some qualification modules carry a recommendation that a registrant has a mentor.
  • In addition, if a registrant is struggling with a particular qualification assignment, the Reading Tutor or the Training Manager may recommend that they work with a mentor. In these circumstances, we allocate a suitable mentor with particular expertise in the qualification module.

Ending the Mentoring Relationship

Most mentoring relationships have a natural ending when the task or goal is accomplished by the mentee. However this is not always the case and there are several possible scenarios:

  • It is not infrequent for a mentee to rarely if ever make contact with the mentor after the initial relationship is established. This is generally that the idea of having someone there ‘just in case’ is all that is need to make the mentee feel confident and able to cope with the task or role. In this circumstance, the mentor should check with the mentee that they are making progress and do not need help but beyond that should treat this as a successful outcome to the relationship
  • Occasionally a mentoring relationship breaks down because the individuals do not get on with each other or because trust and respect is not successfully established. In this circumstance either party is welcome to contact the Training Development Manager who will arrange for the termination of the relationship hopefully without offence to either party.
  • Sometimes a mentor needs to terminate a relationship possibly due to a change in circumstance, role or commitment. Again the Training Development Manager will organise this and if necessary locate a replacement mentor.

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Mentoring for Social Inclusion

Colley, Helen. (2003). Mentoring for Social Inclusion: A Critical Approach to Nurturing Mentoring Relationships. London, UK: RoutledgeFalmer. Colley, Helen. (2003). Mentoring for Social Inclusion: A Critical Approach to Nurturing Mentoring Relationships. London, UK: RoutledgeFalmer.

Helen Colley has written a book on mentoring, based on work for her PhD, and describes her purposes as follows:

I have written this book to bear witness to the complexity of real-life mentor relationships, and to the fact that they are not always happy. I have tried to explain the roots of the unhappiness I observed in a number of cases, pointing to the unrealistic expectations that policy-makers have of mentoring for social inclusion, and to the age-old assumption that carers – most often women – should nurture others in a self-sacrificing way. I have also tried to show how happier outcomes can be achieved, or at least made more possible (Colley, p. xiv).

A book review gives fuller information on this approach to mentoring.

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School-Based Mentoring in the USA

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to Study, School-Based Mentoring in the USA, 2005 Fellowship. Report by Claire Kime.

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