Thirty professionals, ages 28 to 65 and with incomes from $20,000 to $100,000, took part in the TRAINING 79 session on mentors led by Richard C. Grote, president of Performance Systems Corp., Dallas, TX, and Kaye Stine, director of training and management development for Blue Cross/ Blue Shield of Colorado.
All 30 participants reported that having a mentor had been instrumental in their careers. They attended the session because they were curious about the importance of a mentor’s influence on career success in general and because they were interested in exploring the possibility of formal mentorship programs in their organizations, according to Grote and Stine, who asked the group to define the characteristics of a good mentor.
Responses fell in three groups:
• Personal. A good mentor is perceptive and open, personally successful and outstanding in expertise.
• Position. He or she has high status in the organization and the right contacts.
• Process. Good mentors are open to disagreement and skilled at encouraging growth and risk-taking.
Grote and Stijie proposed seven hypotheses about the mentor relationship:
1. The selection process tends to be initiated by the protege and con¬trolled by the mentor.
2. Mentors tend to assume the role in order to overcome deficiencies blocked career growth or other failures rather than for altruistic reasons.
3. Both parties must acknowledge the relationship.
4. Bosses cannot be mentors to those they directly supervise.
5. Sexual interest/involvement is detrimental to mentor relationships.
6. Women tend to be more reluctant than men to serve as mentors.
7. Mentor relationships are temporary.
The participants disagreed most strongly about the first two hypotheses, Grote and Stine report. While the group concurred that mentors do not choose the role for strictly altruistic reasons, they felt that unsatisfied needs rather than failures may be a more likely motive.
The group discussed the roles of the mentor, the sponsor and the boss. Mentors and sponsors serve similar needs, but their roles are quite different, according to group members. Mentors stress individual growth, improving skills and expertise. Sponsors are respected for their savvy, mentors for their wisdom.
Grote’s claim that bosses cannot be mentors because those roles conflict was rejected by the group. And most members denied that women are reluctant to be mentors, Many women are not yet in a position to become mentors, they said, and others lack a female mentor model. However, many members of the group—both men and women— had female mentors and several women identified themselves as mentors.
Stine and Grote asked participants to complete a questionnaire on men¬tor relationships. Some of the find¬ings:
• Number of mentors. Many participants had more than one mentor, and some had as many as three or four. Most had met their most significant mentors early in their careers age 30 or younger and with less than four years’ work behind them.
• Age differences. The mentors de¬scribed ranged in age from 24 to 56. Eight were up to 10 years older than their proteges; six were 10 to 20 years older, and four were 20 or more years older.
• Sex of mentors. Altogether, the group reported a total of 53 mentors, 40 males and 13 females. Of those re¬spondents with mentors of the oppo¬site sex, only four had intimate involvement with the mentor, and three of those relationships ended in mar¬riage. The others reported that the sex of the mentor had little effect on the relationship.
• The mentor’s influence. The respondents valued the mentor relationships highly. Most said their mentors had either a “substantial” or “extraordinary” effect on their careers. They said that their mentors “made me a part of the informal network,” “stood up for me before others” and “helped smooth my acceptance in the organization.” Mentors often influenced personal as well as profes¬sional lives.
Typical comments were that the mentor “provided a role model and was a source of support, emotionally and professionally,” “boosted my self-confidence and promoted me to others,” “gave perspective on me as a person, pushed me, made opportunities for me as a professional.”
Moving beyond mentorship
The transitory nature of the mentor bond was common to all responses. Changes in these relationships were mainly attributed to normal life transitions completing school, changing jobs, retirement, divorce. For a third of the group, the change was made deliberately, usually initiated by the protege. Relationships that ended lasted between one and fourteen years, averaging five. No one saw a former mentor as a competitor, and only one indicated that he and the mentor no longer are in contact. “Friends” and “peers” describe the re¬lationship of former mentors and proteges.
These positive responses support the growing interest in organizationally sponsored mentor programs, say Grote and Stine. Although few models exist to determine if this traditionally voluntary, intimate rela¬tionship can be successfully mandated, many organizations are experimenting with it.
In Continuing Education Corp.’s Advanced Management Program, the classroom learning experience is augmented by a mentor figure back on the job. Jewel Tea encourages a “first-assistant” relationship between bosses and subordinates. And the United Bank of Denver pairs participants in a career development program with senior employees.
Carl Rogers probably spoke for a minority, Stine and Grote concluded, when he said that he was glad he did not have a mentor. For the rest of us, having a mentor and being one is seen as critical to career success.