Leadership and Mentoring

mentoring (istock photo)Bozeman and Feeney (2007) define mentoring as a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development. It entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé ).”

The term mentor originated from Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, in which Odysseus, King of Ithaca, went to fight in the Trojan War and entrusted the care of his kingdom to Mentor, who served as the teacher of Odysseus' son, Telemachus.

Mentoring is often thought of as the transfer of wisdom from a wise and trusted counselor, normally in a leadership position, who helps to guide a person's career to the upper echelons of the organization.

The two most common terms used to describe the person being mentored are “mentee” and “protégé”, while two-lesser used terms are “apprentice” and “student.”

A mentor cares about her protégés and goes out of her way to see that they get the best possible chance to fulfill their career potential. It involves teaching, coaching, and helping to build a high degree of confidence. But what brings out the full magic of mentorship is some degree of affection or warm friendship . . . such as what an older brother might feel for his younger sibling.

Why the Need for Mentoring?

Is mentoring effective? Using their most conservative measures of job and salary grade improvement, Capital Analytics found a 1,000% ROI, for Sun's mentoring program (Dickinson, Jankot, Gracon, 2009).

Mentoring has been shown to have a positive effect on one's career. Another study by Gerard Roche (1979) found that of the 63.5 percent of the 1,250 respondents who had a mentor (defined as “a person who took a personal interest in your career and who guided or sponsored you”) were on the average better paid, reached their positions faster, and were more satisfied with their work and careers than their non-mentored counterparts.

Kram (1986) discovered that mentoring facilitates the socialization of new hires into the organization, reduce turnover, minimize mid-career adjustments, enhance transfer of knowledge and values, and facilitate the adjustment of retirement.

Who Should be Mentored?

While most mentoring programs seemed to be aimed at the best and brightest, Delong and Vijayaraghavan (2003) reported that it makes more sense to go after the large middle-base (B-players) as they make up the great majority of employees (80%) as opposed to the top 10% of star A-players, and the bottom 10% of incompetent C-players):

“Like all prize-winning supporting actors, B-players bring depth and stability to the companies they work for, slowly but surely improving both corporate performance and organizational resilience . . . They will never garner the most revenue or the biggest clients, but they also will be less likely to embarrass the company or flunk out . . . these players inevitably end up being the backbone of the organization.”

The authors also note that an organization's long-term performance and survival depends far more on the contributions of their B-players. These steady performers counter-balance the ambitions of the company's high-performing visionaries, whose strengths, when carried to an extreme, can lead to reckless or volatile behavior. Thus, B-players stabilize the actions of the A-players.

A Gartner report (Dickinson, et al 2009) also noticed a phenomenon in that the best positive findings were in the areas of change in salary, promotion, and retention; however, a major negative finding was:

“. . . investing in a mentoring program for high performers does not yield as significant a return as might be assumed. Rather, the better investment for Sun would be to spend the money on lower performers to help them raise their level of performance.”

Next Steps

Mentoring Resources:

Next Chapter: Visioning

Return to the main Leadership Menu


Bozeman, B., Feeney, M.K. (2007). Toward a useful theory of mentoring: A conceptual analysis and critique. Administrative and society, 39 (6),719 - 739.

Delong, T.J., Vijayaraghavan, V. (2003). Let's Hear It for B-Players. Harvard Business Review, Jun; 81(6):96-102, 137.

Dickinson, K., Jankot, T., Gracon, H. (2009). Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009. Sun Microsystems. Retrieved from http://research.sun.com/techrep/2009/smli_tr-2009-185.pdf

Kram, K.E. (1986). Mentoring in the Workplace. Career Development in Organizations, Hall and associates (eds), pp.160-201. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (1988).

Roche, G. R., (1979). Much Ado About Mentors. Harvard Business Review, January/February, pp.14-28.