Management Development ForumVolume 3 - N0. 1 (00)
A Formula for Successful Mentoring Partnerships: Fewer Fetters and More Meaningful Collaboration
Louise Moser Illes
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Most of us can recall someone other than a family member who, at some point in our lives, has had a significant influence upon us and who may have shaped or determined the course of our careers. This individual was a valued friend or mentor we could trust to give us honest responses and opinions, to encourage us to try something new or different, or to rely upon to help us through a difficult time. From these experiences we have a strong intuitive belief that mentoring is beneficial and rewarding to both those being mentored and those doing the mentoring. Further, over two decades of research and a continuous stream of popular tomes perpetuate the notion that mentoring is valuable and desirable. Yet, in many organizations that actively encourage mentoring through an array of programs and codified procedures, there is considerable ambivalence about mentoring.

If mentoring is indeed as life changing and poignant as so many testimonials indicate, why aren’t more individuals and organizations clamoring to participate in and institutionalize this process? Why have so many mentoring programs succumbed to inertia, failing to achieve their objectives? What can be done to ensure that a mentoring experience will have the desired results? First, this article reviews lessons from the research on mentoring, including a study of a faculty mentoring program. Career stages are discussed as an important variable in determining individual fit and compatibility. Given the considerable absence of data in the literature regarding how mentoring benefits mentors, these factors are reviewed to demonstrate the importance of mentors’ perspectives. Several case studies are also included which give further clues to the often-daunting challenge of establishing successful mentoring relationships.

Current Mentoring Research Findings

In further exploring the above questions, extant research in both the public and private sectors can provide some clues. There is evidence that supports the notion that successful mentoring can lead to positive outcomes. A survey of eight top nursing schools with about 180 faculty member respondents (Williams & Blackburn, 1988) concluded that working directly with junior faculty members on projects significantly increased the research activity of both mentor and protégé. In 1991, a study comparing mentorships versus supervisory relationships indicated protégés were seen to be more successful in their careers, in terms of advancement and promotions, than typical subordinates (Burke, McKenna, & McKeen,1991). Scandura (1992), in a study of managers who had been mentored, identified both vocational and social support functions of mentoring to be significantly related to promotions and salary.

Over a five-year period, Chao (1997) examined the long-term effects of mentoring on alumni at a large midwestern university and a small private institute and discovered that mentored individuals significantly differed from non-protégés on 12 comparisons of job outcomes during a particular period of time. These results indicate that the positive effects of mentoring, particularly on income, organizational socialization and intrinsic job satisfaction, endure long term. In an earlier study of engineers and managers, Chao, Walz and Gardner (1992) had found a significant positive correlation between career-related mentoring and intrinsic job satisfaction.

Juxtaposed with these positive data on mentoring is organizational evidence that confounds the practice of institutionalized mentoring. A protracted study of mentoring at Motorola (Caruso, 1992) discovered that formally assigned mentors were not the protégés’ primary source of help. Apparently no single mentor provided most of the help to protégés. In other words, exclusive one-to-one mentoring relationships were rare and not successfully mandated. Further, protégés in the study tended to believe that their assigned mentors provided much less help than the mentors believed they did. Conversely, the mentors thought protégés made less effort to obtain help than protégés believed. Changing needs and circumstances of both mentors and protégés apparently work to undermine the mentoring relationship and create tension (Kram, 1985). As vexing as it may seem to those in organizations who would orchestrate and advocate mentoring programs, the evidence suggests that the more formal a mentoring program becomes, the less favorable the outcomes of said program (Chao et al., 1992). In the aforementioned study, protégés in informal mentorships also reported more career-related support from their mentors and higher salaries than protégés in formal mentorships.

In a recent attempt to search for mentoring trends beyond the United States, researchers gathered some interesting data from the United Kingdom (Walton, 1998). Following an exhaustive literature and Internet search for accounts of mentoring practices in Western Europe and Ireland, these researchers report that mentoring is well established only in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden. This evidence seems to support the theory that mentoring is better suited to countries with less hierarchical structures and greater tolerance for ambiguity (Hofstede, 1991). In several of these examples, the mentoring process was originally established to help women develop their careers and was later extended to men.

Due to the growing influence of multinational corporations, it is likely that mentoring programs will become a significant factor both as a mechanism to orient new employees and as a means of inculcating corporate values beyond the United States. Furthermore, Megginson and Clutterbuck (1995) predict that mentoring will become more central to development processes in organizations and suggest that mentoring is best left to grow out of the natural affiliation and support that develops between individuals within the organization.

In 1998, a study at a large private university collected data about mentoring partnerships in a formal mentoring program for new faculty members (Illes, 1998). From some initial discussions and interviews with these faculty members, it was evident that some of the mentorships were robust and intense whereas others never materialized. Mentors’ behavior often appeared to be the significant variable in determining the success of the venture.

Eighteen in-depth interviews were conducted with both mentors and protégés to ascertain what could be done to encourage mentors to be strongly supportive and to understand what could be done to facilitate successful mentoring among faculty members. Although a number of mentors indicated they derived benefits from the experience, most listed these as non-tangible, psychosocial benefits such as personal satisfaction, friendship and the ability to help. With further probing, it appeared that the more successful mentoring experiences tended to focus on a collaborative model where the junior faculty member contributed significant intellectual capital to the enterprise either as research/publication support or by contributing ideas toward teaching methodology. These types of relationships also tended to endure over time and beyond the scope of the formal program.

The questions posed to these mentors and protégés and a sample of their responses are provided below:

1. How can we help mentors make mentoring an emphasis and motivate them in this role?
• Use their chairs/supervisors to ensure that it happens.
• Get the right people involved to begin with.
• Identify senior faculty members who see the need for mentoring and have the desire to do it.
• Try to match the interests and needs of mentors and protégés.

2. How can successful mentoring be facilitated by the organization/institution?
• Have mentors and protégés collaborate on something meaningful and relevant to both of them.
• Allow new protégés to choose and change mentors.
• Share successful cases and try to help mentors see the need for mentoring.
• Provide incentives in the form of grant/research money or “release time” to participate.
• Have mentors be involved in the hiring process so they have a stake in the individual.
• Allow the relationships to develop informally with minimal structure.

3. How do we select good mentors?
• Match the profiles of mentors with protégés to get the best fit.
• Look for faculty with good reviews and who value relationships.
• Use the department chairs/supervisors to help match interests and goals of both mentor and protégé.
• Seek out faculty members who have the time and interest to help younger faculty.
• Make sure that it is a voluntary process with no strings attached.

4. How can we better prepare mentors and protégés to be successful?
• Provide an orientation that outlines expectations and mutual goals.
• Discuss issues like mentor-protégé fears and scheduling tips, and have the pairs commit to  meeting regularly.
• Provide material that highlights successful mentoring relationship and factors.
• Be open about the challenges of mentoring.
• Help the pairs select an area of focus on which to work.

Although not all the mentoring pairs claimed to have successful or beneficial experiences, those who did were a) meeting often and regularly, b) had specific collaborative work in common, c) kept the relationship informal, caring and fun, and d) were clear about their roles and expectations. Protégés who were getting the most out of the mentoring experience tended to choose their mentors carefully (matching their interests and needs) and were assertive in the relationship in asking questions, initiating contact, and asking for help when needed. The most common obstacles mentioned were finding time to meet and the lack of mutual interests and goals.

Mentoring and Career Stages

Successful mentoring relationships, due to changing individual and organizational needs and circumstances, do not endure indefinitely. Consequently, it is instructive to examine the organizational context and patterns of relationships that individuals have at successive career stages to fully appreciate the mentoring phenomenon. Just as an individual career can be viewed as a progression through various developmental stages independent of organizational hierarchy, the mentoring process can be more clearly understood in relationship to these development phases that coincide with distinct career stages.

Of the several models of career stages proffered, the Dalton, Thompson and Price (1977) Four Stage Career Development Model provides perhaps the most compelling view of the interplay of mentoring issues throughout a career. The model is based upon more than a decade of research of faculty members and professional engineers to determine why some individuals continued to contribute and be productive throughout their careers while others’ productivity and contributions diminished over time. In this model, a career can be conceptualized as a progression through developmental stages that are independent of organizational structure or hierarchy. Stage 1 individuals or protégés take on the role of learners performing fairly routine tasks and taking direction from more experienced mentors. In Stage 2, protégés have developed some independent skills and abilities and are starting to demonstrate initiative and creativity. By the time the individuals have moved to Stage 3, they have become mentors with the responsibility of developing others and have broadened their interests by contributing through others. Finally, in Stage 4, the individuals have been able to shape the culture and direction of the entire organization and are formulating policy and making decisions that affect the firm/institution. Dalton, Thompson and Price would contend that unless the individuals are able to start influencing others around them and to engage in mentoring activities, they will remain in Stage 2, unable fully to make a transition to the higher stages. Their research indicates that such individuals will not be perceived as competent as others who have been able to move through the stages to at least a Stage 3 level during the course of their careers. Further, the individuals’ importance to an organization may largely depend on their ability to move from a role dominated by individual technical performance to one of collaboration and teamwork.

Although the research upon which the four stages career model is primarily industry-based, there are broader implications with respect to the mentoring phenomenon. Within this model there is an implicit assumption that we all have a need to both be mentored and to mentor at some point in our career. Early work in adult development (Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978; Erickson, 1978) supports the notion that early on in life we need nurturance and guidance from those more experienced to provide us with positive role models, and that later on in life we develop a need for “generativity” (Newman & Newman, 1991). One could argue that this later need for generativity – which can be described as a desire to improve life conditions for the next generation – could readily be expressed through mentoring a more junior and inexperienced colleague or associate. Further, since the four stages model is not necessarily built or reliant upon hierarchy or job level, one could conceivably move through all four stages without ascending to the top of the organization and engage in informal mentoring relationships that are not proscribed by job function. (In the Motorola study, most of the serious mentoring that took place was protégé-driven and dispersed throughout the organization.)

Apparently, mentoring serves the needs of both mentors and protégés in different ways and as a construct may thrive better when flexible and unfettered by organization or institutional mandate. It is also clear that mentoring relationships can be beneficial to the organization through promoting effective and productive role models, expediting new employees’ orientation and establishing close ties and networks that tend to sustain organizational retention. Too often these benefits are not well understood or shared.

Direct benefits accrue to mentors, as the 1998 mentoring study described earlier indicates, and there are a number of mentors who claim to have grown from participating in mentoring experiences. Otto (1994) indicates that, frequently, mentoring benefits are not as obvious to the mentors as to the protégés. She cites such advantages as being able to influence the next generation, and avoiding job stagnation. One recent business publication sells mentors on such mentoring rewards as creating faster learning curves for new employees, increasing the communication of corporate values, enhancing employee loyalty, fostering a more innovative environment, and building allies for the future (Stone, 1999). Some researchers have likewise identified advantages to mentors in being involved in mentoring relationships. Kram (1983) writes:

Entering a developmental relationship with a young adult provides an opportunity at midlife to redirect one’s energies into creative and productive action that can be responsive to [these] salient concerns. The Eriksonian polarity at this life stage, “generativity versus stagnation,” suggests the potential value of a mentor relationship. Through enabling others, the midlife individual satisfies important generative needs (Erikson, 1963, 1968, 1978) and also has the opportunity to review and reappraise the past by participating in a younger adult’s attempts to face the challenges of early adulthood. Individuals may feel challenged, stimulated, and creative in providing mentoring functions as they become “senior adults” with wisdom to share . . . (p. 609)

Having younger colleagues or managers to mentor can also provide a means for the mentors to transmit their values and perspectives, leaving a legacy in the organization. Finally, Schulz (1995) elaborates, albeit a bit too sanguinely, on how mentors can gain recognition and respect by contributing to the protégés’ development, consequently confirming self-worth. Other aspects include a heightened sense of personal awareness, self-discovery, reevaluation, increased visibility, and growth.

Mentoring successes can provide considerable organizational leverage to those mentors who are savvy enough to take advantage of them. For example, one mentoring program at a large, well-known accounting firm1 focuses on gender mentoring to encourage the growth and development of young female protégés. Unexpectedly, the male mentors, who initially signed on with some skepticism, were amazed by how much they learned from the young women they mentored. The head of this pilot program, a male manager, was subsequently promoted and put in charge of a large metropolitan area. In another case, a senior faculty member at a large university, who was assigned to teach a 100 student introductory biology course, chose to involve several new young faculty members. This garnered him help in teaching the class and increased the energy, innovation, and variety of classroom instruction; it also provided the junior faculty members with a model of successful collaborative teaching and enabled the senior faculty member to recruit these colleagues into his research program.

Mentoring Case Studies

From the perspective of the protégés, a mentoring experience can provide a wealth of knowledge and insight that would not otherwise be readily accessible. Organizations tend to view mentoring programs as a way to give junior associates/students a support system and connect them to other resources and networks thereby diminishing the protégés’ sense of isolation. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that mentoring programs can increase an organization’s ability to retain students or employees (Kerr, Schulze, & Woodward, 1995). Not only do the protégés tend to feel a stronger connection to the organization, their learning curves are also accelerated and they are more likely to espouse the values and promote the interests of the institution.

Having the right mentors involved appears to be a critical factor in the eventual success of a mentoring program or enterprise. In one high-tech company, a former university professor who had joined the firm was encouraged to continue teaching a computer design class in the evenings to young engineering students. This enabled the students to have a cooperative, hands-on educational experience while providing a talent pool of bright, young engineering candidates who were often anxious to continue working with this mentor and join the firm upon completing their degrees. This senior design manager/mentor could virtually hand pick from among the best and the brightest of these students. In another higher education example, a newly appointed and nurturing department chair was able to get two senior faculty members revitalized and promoted, both of whom had been unproductive and alienated from the department for years. This chair worked patiently with the faculty members, getting them to refocus and helping them to understand how they could make valuable contributions to the department and college.

Unfortunately, things can sometimes go awry in ostensibly strong mentoring relationships, greatly complicating or jeopardizing the protégés’ relationship to the organization. One manager at a large manufacturing plant, who had hired a young production supervisor, spent hours of his time investing in the new employee, showing him the ropes, providing counsel and advice and otherwise shepherding this employee’s career. A close friendship quickly evolved. They began spending considerable time together after work pursuing their mutual interests in hunting, fishing and target-shooting. When the time came for the younger man to move on and up in the organization, it became clear to him that his mentor was feeling possessive and reluctant to let him go. A very uncomfortable and awkward situation developed affecting their leisure time pursuits and friendship. Eventually the younger protégé felt he had to leave the organization in order to preserve the friendship. In a different example, a circuit design department manager in a consumer electronics corporation, who had forged strong bonds and loyalties with his younger protégés, started feuding with the corporate marketing department when they would not acquiesce to his product ideas. When a subsequent reorganization change occurred which diminished this manager’s role in new products, he became embittered toward the organization. His disenchantment became well known to his department and particularly upset his protégés who felt that he had been mistreated by the firm. In a brave, yet naive show of support, these young employees threw their badges on the table in a meeting with corporate management, threatening to quit unless their mentor was reinstated to his former role. Although they were placated with glib promises for change, it later became clear that corporate management had no intention of giving in to their demands. Feeling disenfranchised, one by one they eventually all left the organization, including the mentor who took an early retirement shortly afterwards.

Sometimes, despite the best efforts and advice from their mentors, protégés will simply choose to go against this counsel for whatever reason and in the process compromise their status in the organization. One such junior faculty member at a large private university was warned by several of her more senior colleagues – including her mentor – not to publicly advocate a position that was counter to the values of the institution during the initial probation period when she had not yet proven herself to the institution. Nevertheless, she opted to continue taking a strong political stance in a public arena encouraged by a network of friends and sympathizers both inside and outside of the organization. Her high visibility provoked a backlash from a group of students and angered and alienated several of her more influential department colleagues, including her department chair. When it came time for her continuing status review, she realized the damage that had been done within her department, and found herself without the strong support and backing she had previously enjoyed. Her mentor was no longer willing to support her and defend her unpopular positions. She was subsequently denied tenure at the institution and was forced out.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

The cited mentoring research and case studies provide the following lessons:

Clearly there can be benefits for individuals and for organizations to foster mentoring relationships. When these experiences are successful, they offer huge bonuses in terms of career opportunities, organizational networking/connections and greater organizational perspective/assimilation. Nevertheless, mentoring experiences can be unpredictable and too often fall short of expectations of all parties concerned.

Drawing from both the research and cases, there are several facilitating factors, which, if present, can be good predictors of mentoring success:

Flowing from these predictors of success are several policy recommendations regarding managing the mentoring process:


There is strong evidence both in industry and higher education that mentoring will grow in importance in the development of individuals and will wield a significant influence on the course of their careers. A growing body of literature supports a trend toward increased mentoring in organizations. As evidenced in the examples provided, mentoring is a rich, yet complex, set of networks and interactions, which often tends to defy organizational boundaries and expectations. Nevertheless, mentoring can be one of the most powerful mechanisms in propelling a career forward when the right conditions are present. Unfortunately, the ideal circumstances are sometimes beyond the organization’s and individual’s control. Paradoxically, the more an organization or institution attempts to control the process of mentoring, the more it appears to be an elusive, arbitrary phenomenon. Perhaps, a more restrained posture of building a supportive organizational climate where reciprocity is encouraged and allowing for mentoring partnerships to create their own agenda is the best way to ensure that mentoring succeeds and, consequently, both the individual and the organization’s needs are met. This means fewer organizational fetters and more opportunities for mentoring participants to engage in meaningful collaboration.


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Louise Moser Illes is the director of Graduate Career Services at Brigham Young University. Prior to her six years in higher education administration, she spent over 20 years in industry in various leadership and executive positions. She has owned a consulting firm and has consulted with numerous businesses and organizations on team and organizational redesign, human resource policy, strategy, and public dispute resolution. She is the author of the book, Sizing Down: Chronicle of a Plant Closing, and her most recent articles focus on understanding how metaphor can shape and lead to transformational change in organizations.

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