What is mentoring?

Mentoring has been around for a long time and there’s lots of evidence available about the personal and professional benefits people have gained as a result of mentoring. But, if you look up mentoring, you’ll see that the term is used differently in different contexts – there’s no universally accepted definition.

Our Definition of Mentoring

From the literature and information we’ve gathered, we’ve come up with a working – or practical – definition of mentoring:

Mentoring is a voluntary professional relationship whose primary purpose is professional development. Mentees look to the mentor – an experienced, knowledgeable, trusted professional – as an advisor who can help them develop personal skills or competencies that will help them achieve personal and career goals.

If that definition sounds a bit indefinite, that’s intentional. Remember, the nature of mentoring depends on a number of individual factors, like:

  • the ground rules the mentor and mentee agree on,
  • the background and experience of the mentor and mentee, and
  • the personalities of the mentor and mentee.

How mentoring differs from other professional relationships

In the business and work world, the distinction between mentoring, coaching, training, role modelling and other human resource driven activities sometimes gets blurred or glossed over. There are important distinctions between mentoring and other professional development-type activities. In this section we explore the key differences.

Mentoring compared to coaching

Coaching is aimed at helping a person (the coachee) develop or refine a specific job-related skill.

The purpose of coaching is normally to improve job performance or for individual skill development. The coaching is driven by the coach and the organization stands to benefit as much from coaching as the coachee. Mentoring, on the other hand, is typically driven by the mentee and it focuses on career development, leadership development, and the transfer of knowledge.

Coaching involves an expert teaching the coachee, or working one-on-one with them. The coach directs the learning and the amount of time the coaching will continue is usually pre-determined. Once the coachee learns the skill or achieves the level of competence desired (or moves on from that position), the coaching ends. Put another way, coaching is more transactional. Mentoring usually lasts longer than coaching.

In the workplace, a coachee’s supervisor (or manager) is generally directly involved. The supervisor often is involved in identifying the need for coaching and typically provides feedback to the coach on the coachee’s progress. In some workplaces, supervisors actually provide the coaching. In contrast, because a mentoring relationship is based on trust and openness, a manager should not act as a mentor for someone who reports to them. At most, a mentee’s manager may be told about a mentee’s goals and objectives regarding mentoring, but the mentor should not provide details to the mentee’s manager about the mentee’s progress.

Mentoring compared to training

Training focuses on teaching work-related skills or processes. Though training can be one-on-one, usually it is a group activity, with all participants learning the same thing.

Mentoring is intended to foster professional and personal growth of an individual (the mentee) that goes beyond learning a particular job or work-related task or skill.

Mentoring compared to role modelling

While mentors are role models, role modelling need not involve any direct contact or actual relationship.

Missing from a simple role model-observer relationship is the interpersonal aspect that is central to the mentor/mentee relationship.

Mentoring compared to buddy system

A buddy system is basically teaming an experienced employee with a less experienced employee (typically a new employee or someone new to a particular function or group) to show the new person how things are done within the organization or group.

A buddy relationship is short-term and is focused on familiarizing the new person with the organization’s processes and hierarchy – there’s no expectation of emotional engagement between the two. The only requirement for being a buddy is knowledge of how the organization runs. Mentoring is a longer term relationship with the goal of helping the mentee achieve personal and career development.

Mentoring compared to sponsorship

Sponsors are people who use their influence to advocate for, or promote, the person they’re sponsoring. (We’ll refer to the person being sponsored as the protégé.)

For example, a sponsor may nominate their protégé for promotion, for a position, for an award, or even for a project they think the protégé will excel at. In other words, a sponsor may open doors for the protégé, but they are not focused on nurturing and advising the protégé.

Mentor and Mentee


A mentor is a person who has professional and life experience and who voluntarily agrees to help a mentee develop skills, competencies, or goals. Put another way, a mentor is an advisor and role model who is willing to invest in the mentee’s personal growth and professional development.

Mentors are more than role models

Some folks think that mentor is really just another word for role model. Mentors certainly are expected to be a role model for mentees in a variety of areas, such as relating to peers, work-life balance, and ethics, but merely being a role model does not make you a mentor. Being a mentor means interacting with a mentee and providing support, advice, and feedback to the mentee – in other words, it requires involvement with the mentee.

What makes a good mentor?

  • A desire to help others succeed
  • A willingness to pass along information
  • A willingness to give and receive feedback
  • A desire to work with others
  • A desire to engage with others on an interpersonal level
  • A desire to learn
  • A motivation to mentee
  • Good listening and communication skills
  • Good questioning skills
  • Good common sense
  • Good people management and leadership skills
  • Knowledge of the industry, organization, or field in which the mentee works or aspires to work in
  • Self-confidence and self-awareness
  • Strong ethics
  • Lack of prejudice
  • Openness, honesty and trustworthiness
  • Patience
  • Empathy


A mentee is someone who has identified a specific personal or professional goal and who believes that the guidance and help of a mentor – and being held accountable to the mentor – can help them achieve their goal.

The mentee's potential

Before agreeing to enter into a mentoring relationship, a mentor must believe the prospective mentee possesses qualities that will increase the likelihood that the mentee will benefit from the relationship.

Qualities to look for in mentees

  • A willingness to learn about themselves
  • A willingness to learn from others’ experience
  • Commitment to their personal and professional growth
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Good listening skills
  • An easy ability to learn
  • An open mind and a willingness to try new things
  • An ability to accept feedback and learn from it
  • Patience and ability to take a long-term view
  • Good communication skills
  • Flexibility
  • Respect for other people's time and effort
  • Realistic expectations
  • A strong work ethic
  • A strong initiative
  • A clear commitment to being mentored
  • A willingness to take responsibility for their career
  • Openness, honesty and trustworthiness

Characteristics of effective mentoring relationships

Though no two relationships are the same, successful mentoring relationships have certain things in common. Here are the fundamental characteristics necessary for an effective mentoring relationship:

  • The relationship is intentional – the mentor and mentee agree to the relationship
  • The parties approach each other as professionals
  • The parties have mutual respect for each other
  • The parties are able to give and take feedback
  • The parties communicate openly and honestly
  • The relationship is founded on mutual trust and a guarantee of confidentiality

Though all of the characteristics listed above are important, the requirements for open, honest communication, mutual trust, and guaranteed confidentiality are fundamental and without all of these, a mentoring relationship will be of no value. Open communication is important in many types of relationships, but it is particularly important in a mentoring relationship because sharing private, personal information is so crucial. Trust and commitment to guaranteeing confidentiality are also essential because without them, people will not risk opening up.

Benefits of mentoring relationships

Mentoring is beneficial for a mentee’s professional development, which encompasses two main areas:

Personal Development

This type of development (sometimes referred to as psychosocial development) is aimed at enhancing the mentee’s sense of competence and identity.

Actions of the mentor aimed at promoting the mentee’s personal development can include things like role modelling, acceptance and confirmation, counselling, and friendship. For example, through role modelling mentees can learn how to manage aspects of their personal and professional lives – things like relating to peers and supervisors and strategies for balancing work and family demands. As well, as a result of the mentor’s acceptance, mentees feel nurtured and comfortable enough to try new behaviours and safe enough to raise and seek guidance on personal issues.

Career development

This type of development is aimed at supporting the mentee’s career progress and job performance. It can involve career advancement and helping the mentee learn to navigate within an organization or industry, for example, by honing specific skills, like presentation or networking skills.

It can also be aimed at helping develop management skills, such as managing a team that is diverse in terms of age, experience, or background.

It can also involve career advice and help, such as helping the mentee decide on an educational program that might advance their career, or help with a particular course. Actions of the mentor aimed at helping career development can include things like sponsorship, providing exposure and visibility, protection, and providing challenging assignments.

The value of mentoring

The demographic trends across the insurance industry, much like that of the general economy, show that over the next few years, significant numbers of boomers will retire. When they do, there’s a risk the industry will lose skills that are hard to teach through traditional training: people skills, leadership skills, and ethical decision-making skills. Mentoring, with its unique focus on relationships, can be an effective way of transferring those skills.

Attracting and retaining talent

Mentoring can play an important role in the industry in attracting and retaining talent. The insurance industry is often overlooked as a career choice because it lacks glamour. By mentoring recent grads and those new to the industry, experienced industry professionals can help spread the word about the varied career path and benefits available in a career in the insurance industry.

From an industry and corporate perspective, mentoring has been found useful in terms of employee retention and succession planning. In terms of the benefits of mentoring for the Canadian p&c insurance industry specifically, the Insurance Institute's demographic studies have shown that the industry should be taking steps that focus on both retention and succession planning. Though levels of recruitment have improved over the past decade, as workers mature it becomes even more important for employers to take steps to retain people. Encouraging mentoring is one of the most effective means by which an employer can show commitment to its employees’ personal growth and job satisfaction. And, employers benefit because mentors who are near retirement age can help identify and develop successors.

Long-term personal benefit

People who have taken part in a mentoring relationship report that they benefited in terms of both career and personal development. Career development literature shows that many consider being a mentor a key developmental task for individuals, especially mid-career, while those who have been mentees report higher levels of compensation, career advancement, and career satisfaction.

Top Tips for Being a Good Mentee

When dealing with a mentorship, there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration. A good mentor is constantly aware of and improving their skills, so you must learn to continuously progress as a mentee. If you and your mentor fit together symbiotically, the mentorship will blossom into a valuable relationship.

This in mind, there are a few things you should understand before and during their relationship. Preparing yourself for you time with your mentor can help ensure that you have a happy and helpful mentorship together.

Here are the top 10 tips for being a good mentee.


Remember Your Mentor is a Volunteer

First off, it’s important to remember your mentor is a volunteer. They have more experience in the field, and they are taking time out of their schedule to help you develop and grow, so there must be healthy boundaries and respect in your relationship. This means as a good mentee, you should be aware of and minimize time wasters that occur during your meetings. Also ensure you show gratitude for the time and advice, and never act rudely or attempt to downplay their knowledge.

Take Responsibility for Your Own Learning

Your mentor cannot do everything for you, they can only give you tools and guidance. You must be willing to take charge of your learning by asking questions and actively participating in the conversations to become a good mentee. Plus, you should absorb all the knowledge you can as asking the mentor to repeat themselves frequently is a waste of their time.

Develop Trust

Your mentorship does not automatically establish trust between you and your mentor. It must be developed and nurtured. You will both need to work to establish trust at the beginning of the relationship. Having trust can opens up a channel of communication, which is important to the success of your mentorship.

Be Respectful of Your Mentor’s Time

Your mentor has a lot of room to help you but remember that they are likely a busy person. Again, be respectful of this by cutting out time wasters in your meeting, and make sure you give them plenty of notice if you need to cancel or reschedule a session.

Set Realistic Expectations with Your Mentor

Your mentor is a guide. They are not going to do everything for you, they are going to mentor you. Expecting them to do so can lead to unsuccessful mentor matches. A successful mentee sets goals and expectations at the beginning to base the mentorship on a solid foundation and avoid these awkward mishaps.

Come to Each Meeting with a Prepared Agenda

This ties in with respecting your mentor’s time and setting realistic expectations. If you have a prepared agenda for each meeting, you are much more likely to stay on task and optimize the time you have together. However, make sure you stay consistent and set your expectations early. If your mentor says they will bring the agenda, let them.

Be Open About Your Needs and Provide Feedback to Your Mentor

Like any other relationship, your mentorship must be suited to fit your needs. But also like in any other relationship, your mentor will not be able to read your mind, so telling them what you need from them will allow you to flourish as a good mentee. Be honest if you need something to change and let them know if you don’t understand something. Also make sure you tell them when they’re doing a great job and show them gratitude. They are there to help you, so they’ll be excited to know that it’s working.

Recognize Your Mentor’s Limitations

Your mentor may be phenomenal, but they will have a limit to their knowledge and abilities. Don’t get frustrated because they cannot help you but talk with them and work in areas where they can. If you need guidance beyond that which your mentor can give you, ask for their recommendations to help you find others who have the necessary skills.

Take Appropriate Risks

Your mentorship offers the opportunity to have someone else committed to your progress. They will help you remove barriers and pull you out of your comfort zone. Don’t fight them on this. Leaving your comfort zone is often where the real work happens. Try new things and allow yourself to make mistakes.

Be Flexible and Learn

A mentorship can be an amazing and productive way to improve yourself. Take advantage of this relationship and learn as much as you can but be constantly aware of ways to better yourself and the relationship. Flexibility will help you be a better mentee in this regard.

Tips for Being a Good Mentor

It’s a common misconception that mentoring programs are focused solely on the mentee.

It is true that the mentee is essential in driving the mentoring relationship. However, the mentor leads the mentee down the path to success. Without that guidance no goals can be met. That makes the mentor a vital component in whether or not the relationship is successful.

The mentor takes on a significant amount of responsibility. That means they need to put in just as much work as the mentee to ensure that they both succeed. They also need mentor training to help them be successful. Through mentor training, they are able to learn the tips and tricks to help them be successful in their role.

Here are 7 tips for being a good mentor...


Set Initial Expectations with the Mentee

Setting expectations is one of the most crucial steps for anyone in a mentoring relationship. The mentor and mentee must clearly outline their expectations for each other and the relationship. They must also agree on these expectations. This will help avoid role confusion and give the mentorship great potential for success. A good mentor must take initiative to ensure the expectations are set at the beginning of the relationship. This can be achieved through creating a mentoring agreement. This agreement can be monitored and managed by participants and admins through mentoring software.

Take a Genuine Interest in the Mentee.

While it’s important to understand a mentee’s role and career goals, it’s hard to form a successful relationship with someone that you don’t actually know. That is why mentors should spend time at the beginning of the relationship getting know more about their mentee. Learning more about the mentee decrease the challenge of making assumptions throughout the relationship. Instead, the mentors and mentees can ask detailed questions and better understand the answers. This will promote effective communication between the mentor and mentee.

Guide the Mentee’s Development

It’s important that to understand how to point the mentee in the right direction and when to wait before giving advice. The mentee needs to take responsibility for their own learning. They also need to be autonomous when it comes to doing their part in the relationship. The mentor is there as a guide, but mentee must do the work themselves. A good practice for this is to ask guiding questions to the mentee to help them discover the answer. Suggestions can be made, but it's important to avoid telling the mentee exactly what to do. Knowledge sharing from previous experience can help achieve this.

Share Previous Mistakes

It's important for people to learn from their own mistakes. However, mentors are in the unique position to share previous experiences with their mentee. This includes their own mistakes. There is a good chance that the mentee will face the same challenges that the mentor has already overcome. By knowing about the mentor's experience, the mentee will have invaluable knowledge to take on the challenge before a mistake is made.

Celebrate Their Milestones

Along with setting expectations, the mentee should also set quantifiable goals. These goals will make it possible to track their improvement as a mentoring program participant. A good mentor takes the time to track the mentee’s progress and adjusts goals as need be. A great way to do this is through mentoring software. Celebrating the progress is just as important as tracking it. The milestones should be celebrated. When a mentor takes the initiative to celebrate a mentee's milestones, they are able to strengthen the overall relationship.

Give More Than the Mentee Asks For

Effective mentoring in the workplace takes effort from both parties, so it’s important to lead by example. A good mentor gives everything they ask the mentee to give, and then some. Mentors should dedicate time, effort, and thought to the mentoring program. This will allow them to effectively communicate with the mentee and push them to also give 100%. This is arguably the most important tip as it shows the mentee that they are the only one invested in the relationship.

Solve for the Long-Term

A formal mentoring relationship may last for less than a year, but what the mentee learns will be with them throughout their entire career. Mentors should always keep this in mind. Both parties should have their thoughts on the long-term and the goals should reflect that. Also, a good mentor should make themselves available past the mentorship. Keep the relationship even when the program is over, and don’t hesitate to help out the former mentee.

Mentoring Skills and Qualifications for Mentoring Programs

There are mentoring skills and qualifications necessary to be successful as a mentoring program participant. These include

Mentoring Skills


Though mentors are usually sought out for their skills and knowledge, they need to always be there for the mentee. This means they need to have excellent communication skills. This is especially true about active listening skills, because a big part of a mentor’s job is to listen to the mentee.

Communication skills are refined in our 21st Century Training Programs.

Goal Setting

Goals often drive the entire mentorship, so mentors should know how to set them. This includes having realistic expectations for the mentee and recording the goals and their progress. Goal setting should happen in one of the first mentoring sessions, so that the mentee is always working towards something.

Constructive Mentoring

The mentee is going to rely on the mentor to let them know how they are progressing. Both parties need to be comfortable enough to give praise where it’s due. Both participants also need to be able to take criticism when something could be improved.

However, good mentors should focus on the positive and provide gentle guidance when improvement is necessary. Mentors should also motivate the mentee to improve themselves and let them know when they did a great job.

Specific Skill Sets

There are many possible fields that mentees may need help in. These can include leadership skills development, or even a specific skill set for their job function. A mentor should be ready to help with all of these skills or refer a peer if the skill set is out of their repertoire.

Mentoring Qualifications

Outside of specific skills, individuals also need to be qualified in other ways. Here are a few qualifications for good mentors.

Desire to Mentor

Not only are mentors helping a mentee advance their skill set, but they should be picking up a few things along the way. The relationship may not be focused on the mentor, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from it. Some of the most successful relationships we’ve seen came by way of reverse mentoring.

Open Mind and Positive Attitude

Mentors have the opportunity to make a lasting impression on a potentially “green” employee. Mentors serve as brand ambassadors. Keeping an open mind and having a positive attitude will help mentors connect with their mentees.


Mentors are making a conscious time commitment to help develop a mentee in an area of need. It would be highly unprofessional and disadvantageous to the relationship if it were treated as a bother. Mentors should make time to foster the relationship’s growth.

Mentoring Overview

Remember, mentoring is about transferring information, competence, and experience to mentees so they can make good use of the relationship and build their confidence accordingly. Mentors are there to encourage, nurture, and provide support, because they’re already been in the mentee’s shoes.

Also remember that mentoring is about structured development – mentors don’t have to tell the mentee everything they know about a subject at every opportunity. Employees are now able to condition themselves using the skills and expertise of someone who has been there.

A good thing to remember is no one was inherently born with all of the mentoring skills needed, and that’s okay. Mentors may not also understand what the role is to be a mentor, or how the relationship will evolve. Mentor training can be implemented to make sure you have harnessed all the skills needed to be a proficient mentor and understand their role on what they should be doing.

5 Reasons to Volunteer as a Mentor

While this requires a time commitment, there are many benefits of mentoring come with being a good mentor. Here are 5 reasons you should volunteer to mentor in your organization.

Career Development Opportunities

Career development objectives are often included in mentoring plans. While the goals for career development mentoring often focus on the mentee, development is also accessible to the mentor. Volunteering as a mentor can unlock opportunities for career development that were previously inaccessible.

In fact, one study reports that 28% of participating mentors received a raise within 5 years of participating in a mentorship. This is in comparison to only 5% of non-mentors in that same time frame. The study also shows that mentors are six times more likely to get promoted into new positions.

Helping a mentee create their career development plan can provide an opportunity for the mentor to examine their own career paths. With this reflection, the mentor can find renewed motivation to continue their career or switch paths. This is also beneficial for mentors that find themselves stuck in the same routine.

Being a mentor shows that you are committed to the organization and your peers. Through this commitment, you are able to develop others while also improving yourself.

Expanded Networks

The mentee gains access to their mentor’s entire network when the mentorship begins. However, this works both ways. The mentor will also gain an expanded network, more so if they have multiple mentees. Valuable information may be gained through an expanded network.

The communication and connections made within these networks gives mentors an overall wider perspective on global organizational problems.

Fresh Perspective

When mentors receive feedback from their mentees, they are gaining a fresh perspective. If you volunteer as a mentor, you can take this perspective as an opportunity to reflect on your own practices. Self-reflection is an important part of both career and personal growth.

A study found that employees who take the time to self-reflect perform 23% better on average. Becoming a mentor gives you the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective from your mentee to reflect on and grow through. Opportunities such as this may be few and far between, especially if you are in a leadership or executive position.

The fresh perspective of the mentee is not limited to the mentorship, though. Less experienced mentees often have new ideas and creative solutions for specific organizational problems. Mentors frequently find that their mentees are helpful in problem solving.

Mentees can also provide fresh perspective on ideas for future projects in the organization. For executives and policy makers, mentees can supply a source of feedback on programs and policies currently in place.

Exposure to Diversity

Mentor matches are often based on development needs and strengths. Because of this, mentors are often paired with mentees outside of their normal circle that may be different than them. Creating diverse relationships with coworkers supports diversity and inclusion throughout the organization.

These diverse pairing offer opportunities for good talent to be recognized. This goes for both the mentor and the mentee. Mentors are then able to recruit top talent for their teams or be recognized for their own talent.

Exposure to diversity in the workplace gives the mentor improved communication skills. It also provides increased creativity, higher levels of innovation, and better company reputation. As leaders or executives, mentors will be able to promote a better company culture with this exposure.

Improved Skills

As they continuously work to improve their mentee, mentors find themselves improving as well. Consequently, the mentor’s confidence in their own ability will increase throughout the mentorship. By teaching their own practices and knowledge, personal abilities are rehearsed, practiced, and improved.

Further, individuals feel challenged, stimulated, and creative when providing mentor functions. This happens because they have a mentee looking to them for advice and examining their experience. Working with a mentee also challenge mentors to improve their interpersonal, problem solving, and communication skills.