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The article provides an overview of current issues in mentoring. After drawing on suggestions from participants at a mentoring conference, the article moves on to examine some key emerging questions concerning the value of formal mentoring, the role of training and the experience of mentroing in different countries. The article concludes with a consideration of methodology and how we can come to know what people’s experience is of mentoring.



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Current issues in mentoring

By David Megginson

This article is a summary of the sixth European Mentoring Conference, which I co-chaired with David Clutterbuck at Robinson College, Cambridge, in November 1999. The attendance was the highest we have had by far, and the range of speakers was wide enough to give a sense of the state of mentoring throughout Europe – the UK, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden being represented, and, from outside Europe, Australia and the USA. Many issues arose, and in this paper I comment briefly on all the points raised by participants at the final review session of the conference. I then deal in greater depth with the “big four” issues for me.

Participants’ sense of the issues

At the final review I invited participants to suggest what the issues had been for them. A summary list is given below, with brief comments from me for clarification. I have made reference to the speakers who raised or triggered these issues by citing their names but not a date. Names with dates refer to other articles not presented at the conference, and these are referenced in the usual way at the end of this article. If readers want to review the full range of papers presented at the conference, then these are available from the European Mentoring Centre, Burnham House, High Street, Burnham, SL1 7JZ. Details of future conferences can also be obtained from the same address.

  • Emotional intelligence – as emotional intelligence enters the mainstream of thinking about relationships at work, its place in mentoring is coming under consideration. Mentors, even more than instructors and coaches need a high level of emotional intelligence in order to use their own experience wisely in the service of the mentee.
  • Linking the academy and practice. The integration of thought and action is a frequent theme in mentoring, where the notion of personal reflective space (Clutterbuck and Megginson, 1999, pp. 8-10) offers a template for praxis. One insight illustrated how a rigorous approach to thinking from an academic mentor could help a practitioner mentee to gain a perspective on his practice.
  • Clarifying the language. The definitive definition of mentoring is a chimera not worth pursuing, or rather, to pursue it is merely an exercise of power (“I want all you others to embrace my definition”). However, in fields of practice like mentoring, where definitions are largely arrived at by observing what people do, it is worth differentiating the practice from other related activities, like counselling, coaching and instructing (Megginson and Clutterbuck, 1995, p. 30).
  • Impact of technology on mentoring. The notion of the boundaryless career creates the possibility of the virtual mentor – one who is outside the organisation of the mentee and who only rarely encounters the mentee face to face.
  • Diversity mentoring, including working with difference and inclusiveness. Diversity considerations in matching mentor and mentee are critically important – formal mentoring seems particularly to disadvantage those matched with women and especially women mentees matched with women.
  • Dysfuntional mentoring, including addressing the dark side of mentoring. Much discussion of mentoring treats it as an unquestioned good. Reminders of the dark side can lead to more judicious relationship and scheme design.
  • Culture and the effects of national, organisational and scheme organisers’ culturally shaped approaches to mentoring. There is a story of a British manager in an international company, who agonised over the wording of an invitation to a German and a Spanish colleague to come to a meeting. Eventually he sent the invitation out. He was affronted when neither of them came. On enquiring about their absence, the German said the instruction had not been clear enough, so she had not felt obliged to come. The Spaniard said the message had been too rude and abrupt, so he had declined to attend.
  • Mentor quality seems to have a major impact on outcomes and this is especially a matter of concern with formal mentoring. The time for training of mentors may be crucial in this. Is it 1,000 hours (nobody does this – but see below), six days or much less (most other scheme reports)? This also leads to the question of supervision where mentoring could learn from the strengths and the mistakes of the counselling profession.
  • A suggestion was made that a global register of mentors should be established, who could be matched for co-mentoring and peer supervision, building a pool of knowledge and leading to national and international standards. However, others saw a looming threat of an imposed orthodoxy as an argument against this approach.
  • Mentoring for young, fragmented businesses was seen as a major need.
  • The benefits of mentoring to both mentor and mentee remain an issue of interest.
  • Evaluation of schemes was frequently raised in discussions during the conference. Widespread concern was expressed about the need for more or better evaluation. However, those raising this concern seemed not to have noticed all the papers that describe benefits – see the list immediately above – where mentoring has been evaluated. There is a need to bring this evidence together in a compelling way.

The big issues from the conference for me

There were four principal issues that arose from the conference for me:

  1. the question of whether formal mentoring can replicate the benefits of informal;
  2. whether training for formal mentors can help compensate for the weaknesses of formal schemes;
  3. the experience of the mentoring process in different countries/cultures; and
  4. the methodological question of how we can come to know what people’s experience is.

Can formal mentoring replicate the benefits of informal?

Ragins’ paper at the conference and earlier reports of her research (Ragins and Cotton, 1999) indicate that there is a big question over formal mentoring schemes. Formal mentoring in these studies yields less outcomes for the mentees than informal mentoring. Indeed, formal mentoring seems not to yield significantly more outcomes than no mentoring at all. This may be in part because the mentoring in some formal schemes never gets going to a significant extent, as Arnold and Johnson’s (1997) research into two schemes in the UK showed. Similarly, Orpen (1997) demonstrates the link between interaction opportunities and both the motivation and commitment of mentees. This apparent effect may also be a function of the different agendas for mentoring in different countries. As observed elsewhere (Gibb and Megginson, 1993; Megginson, 1998), measuring the career functions prevalent in the American literature may be less than appropriate to the European context. These functions may not be sought or desired by European scheme managers and participants. However, European researchers, who avail themselves of off-the-shelf American questionnaires, sometimes still use these measures.

Ragins suggested that many of the features of schemes, which might be imagined to make a difference to scheme outcomes, did not have any statistically measurable effect. This represents a major challenge for scheme organisers and researchers of global schemes (see below), to test carefully the outcomes of their efforts and to enquire deeply about causal contributors to success.

Can training for mentors help compensate for the weaknesses of formal schemes?

A session hosted by Julia Pokora and Nancy Redfern was very interesting, because, of all the cases, it was the one which took most seriously the training of the mentors. If Ragins’ (1999) study showed that these scheme design variables had little effect, it may have been that the sample did not include a wide enough range of treatments. The schemes presented elsewhere at the conference reported a range of 1 to 2 days’ training for mentors. Nancy Redfern used her professional and personal authority to get hospital doctors and others to do six days. This is impressive. Is it enough, I wonder?

The question is sharpened by the experience of Dixon (1998)in training people in the art of dialogue, where she suggests that this skill requires about 1,000 hours for use even in conditions of only moderate difficulty. Argyris (1997) makes the same point more forcefully (though somewhat inconsistently) about using (Model II) productive reasoning. A similar timescale (1,000 hours) is suggested for learning any relatively complex skill to a reasonably proficient standard (like playing a musical instrument well enough to perform in an amateur orchestra, or to play tennis at club level).

If this timescale is required to master helpful mentoring, then line managers in organisations are unlikely to be able to take it on. This would be an attractive outcome for professional mentors, who make their living out of the process, always assuming that they themselves dedicate this order of time to honing their own skills!However, there is another argument – that, like the family therapy notion of a “good enough parent”, it might be possible to become a “good enough mentor” in closer to six days, rather than the 125 days suggested by the 1,000 hour dictum.

On the one side of this argument there is the notion that we are talking about skills that are sufficiently widely dispersed in the managerial population to make the current best practice enough to ensure that we obtain mentors of the requisite quality to make a difference to mentees. On the other side is the argument that these skills are rare and precious, and only acquired by taking great pains to develop oneself. I have not yet come to a settled view on this issue, and it is clearly one that will repay further careful inquiry.

The experience of the mentoring process in different countries/cultures

Here is a story from the conference that illustrates the complexity of the phenomena we are concerned with. I went expectantly to Cecchinato and Meacci’s session, in order to understand the phenomenon of Italian mentoring, as it was one of the very few southern European examples we have heard over the years. Surprisingly, their account sounded like a northern European (or, rather, a specifically British) story and it was only three-quarters of the way through that I learned that Jenny Sweeney, a British consultant who was also present in the audience, had advised them on their design two years before. So it is not just national culture and corporate/national culture (e.g. US firms in Europe doing US mentoring) but also the national culture of the advisers to the scheme that could have some bearing on the shape of mentoring being advocated. Indeed, the books and articles that scheme organisers have read could influence the aspirations and processes of their scheme.

In Clutterbuck and Megginson (1999, pp. 137-40) we identify a pattern of characteristic approaches to executive mentoring by country, which is summarised in Table I Characteristic approaches to executive mentoring by country . This represents a starting point. However, as the example in the story above illustrates, the situation is complex, and further research is needed.

Some fascinating practice issues emerge from this analysis. How is compatibility best viewed in a mentoring relationship? Hale’s paper at the conference shows how interesting it is to compare just one dimension – learning style – between mentor and mentee. He contrasts pairing similar styles with pairing different styles. Looking at the range of variables in an international situation will require a rich conceptual model, as there are many strands involved. One dimension of the complexity of this issue is how difference in nationality of mentor and mentee can be seen as the goal, as an incidental advantage, or as a problem to be overcome. Diversity can be the goal, as in a two-country partnership, where the aim is to introduce the mentee to the way of going on of the mentor from the other country. It can be an incidental benefit, as when a wide range of nationalities have opportunities to mix in a scheme which is primarily designed to communicate the existing company culture. It could also be viewed as a problem, as when members of contrasting national cultures hold different and clashing expectations of the mentoring relationship.

The strength of these differences was illustrated at the conference during the warm-up activity we undertook on the first morning, where we asked members from each country represented to come up with a characteristic question from their country. As an example, it was suggested by Daniel Belet, a french delegate, that the French mentor might ask, ‘‘Quelle sont vos diplomes?” (And what are your qualifications?).

The methodological question of how we can come to know what people’s experience is

My methodological question is, “How we can come to know what people’s experience is?” This is an epistemological issue about the nature of knowledge. It ramifies (via Weick, 1995; Gergen, 1994) into an ontological question. The ontological question is about our view of the world itself. Is it one where we can talk about experience and stuff-out-there separate from the stories that we can tell about it? Radical sensemakers (e.g. Weick) and social constructionists (e.g. Gergen) argue that all we can have is the stories that we tell.

Weick (1995, p. 61) asks what is necessary in order to make sense of the world, and answers:

Something that preserves plausibility and coherence, something that is reasonable and memorable, something that embodies past experience and expectations, something that resonates with other people, something that can be constructed retrospectively but also can be used prospectively, something that captures both feeling and thought, something that allows for embellishment to fit current oddities, something that is fun to construct. In short, what is necessary in sensemaking is a good story.

So, to penetrate the mysteries of international mentoring in multi-national organisations or cross-national mentoring pairs, we need to have a method that gives us some vivid stories, which contrast different experiences. Questionnaires can take us so far into this world and give us systematic patterns of difference, but then we are still left with the question, “What do these differences mean?’ Access to the meanings behind the data can most directly be gained by seeking out the stories of the participants. Many researchers who use questionnaires come up with findings which leave the reader bemused and no further forward in their own thinking about the topic. On the other hand, researchers in the questionnaire tradition who make an impact (like Belle Ragins) have always either been so deeply immersed in the field, or look at their data with such insightful intelligence, that they are able to build impactful stories from them. The future for methodology in this fascinating area seems to me to require a great emphasis on stories and their collection.

Borredon’s paper at the conference offers a rigorous way of analysing the sense that can be drawn from the stories. It could be argued that the fact that her meta-analysis of our book (Clutterbuck and Megginson, 1999) yields different conclusions from our own analysis, highlights the essential weakness of these qualitative methods. I would argue however, that this is no different from what happens with large sample quantitative research. For example, Ragins (1999) uses gender as a substitute for power in her discussion of the causes of the differences she finds. I have no objection to this – it is an interesting argument and one that leads to practical consequences that may be helpful. My point is that this is “just” a story about the data. So whether you use 22 case studies (as David Clutterbuck and I did) or 1,162 questionnaires (as Belle Ragins has), you are left at the end with having to construct stories.


Argyris, C. (1997), “Organisational learning – gaps, inconsistencies and opportunities”, Proceedings of the Institute of Personnel & Development’s HRD Week, QED Recording Services, New Barnet.

Arnold, J. and Johnson, K. (1997), “Mentoring in early career”, Human Resource Management Journal, Vol. 7 No. 4, pp. 61-70.

Clutterbuck, D. and Megginson, D. (1999), Mentoring Executives and Directors, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Dixon, N. (1998), Dialogue at Work, Lemos & Crane, London.

Gergen, K. (1994), Towards Transformation in Social Knowledge, 2nd ed., Sage, London.

Gibb, S. and Megginson, D. (1993), “Inside corporate mentoring schemes: a new agenda of concerns”, Personnel Review, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 40-54.

Megginson, D. (1998), “Mentoring research overview”, Proceedings of the Fifth European Mentoring Conference, 12-13 November, European Mentoring Centre/Sheffield Business School, pp. 113-20.

Megginson, D. and Clutterbuck, D. (1995), Mentoring in Action, Kogan Page, London.

Orpen, C. (1997), “The effects of formal mentoring on employee work motivation, organizational commitment and job performance”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 53-60.

Ragins, B.R. (1999), “Mentor functions and outcomes: a comparison of men and women in formal and informal mentoring relationships”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 84 No. 4, pp. 529-50.

Weick, K.E. (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.


Copyright © 2000 MCB. All rights reserve
Career Development International, Vol 5 Issue 4/5 Date 2000 ISSN 1362-0436

Current issues in mentoring

David Megginson
Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK

Keywords: Mentoring, Methodology, Training
Type of Article: Wholly theoretical
Content Indicators: Readability**, Practice Implications**, Originality**, Research Implications*

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