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
- 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
- the question of whether formal mentoring can replicate
the benefits of informal;
- whether training for formal mentors can help compensate
for the weaknesses of formal schemes;
- the experience of the mentoring process in different
- the methodological question of how we can come to know
what peoples 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 Johnsons (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
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,
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
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 Meaccis 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
Some fascinating practice issues emerge from this analysis. How
is compatibility best viewed in a mentoring relationship? Hales
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 peoples
My methodological question is, How we can come to know what
peoples 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
Borredons 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 & Developments HRD Week
, QED Recording Services, New
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
, 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
, 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
Copyright © 2000 MCB. All rights reserve
Career Development International, Vol 5 Issue 4/5 Date 2000
Current issues in mentoring
Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK
Mentoring, Methodology, Training
Type of Article:
Readability**, Practice Implications**, Originality**,