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Situational Mentoring:
Matching your role with your preferences

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.
Author of The Mentoring Partner's Handbook

(For individual usage only, not to be used in organizational training programs)

Mentoring is seen as a positive solution to many societal and organization problems. Formal mentoring programs are flourishing. You are probably wondering what role you should play when asked or volunteered to be a mentor. There probably are as many definitions of mentoring as there are writers on the subject. In a recent survey 130 partners were asked to think about their most effective mentoring relationship. Their response to three questions indicated that there is no single definition or one universal role for mentoring.

As final evidence participants said:

For a complete discussion of the survey results see:

Survey results

Rather than base expectations about what role a mentor should fulfill on the values and motives of an author or program sponsor, we feel the mentor should pick a role or combination of roles to fit their preferences and level of commitment. In other words, mentoring should be situational and those who implement and evaluate mentoring programs need to communicate the differing possible roles instead of implying that one size fits all. When someone asks, "Do you want to be a mentor?" the response should be "if it is a role I am comfortable fulfilling and, based on my skills and style, where I can make a contribution".

How can we get more people involved in mentoring? One obvious answer is to show the commitment to mentoring by making it part of a person?s performance evaluation and reward system. A less obvious answer is to give mentors choices on the type of mentoring they do, to ask them to contribute as a mentor where they have the necessary skills and are comfortable with their roles. Defining mentoring as all-encompassing leads to feeling of inadequacy, false expectations, and an unwillingness to volunteer to be a mentor.

Based on research and consulting work the author over the past 25 years, the author has identified six appropriate mentoring roles. A mentor can choose to be a specialist, performing just one role or a generalist, performing a number of these roles. There is one universal, a mentor is a helper. Helping another person do what, or accomplish what depends on the role chosen by the mentor.

Mentor Roles


Others Role

Mentor?s Teaching Style

Skills, Knowledge, Abilities



Acclimate and integrate new employees



Knows the organizations, policies, practices, information?how things get done.

Only for the first 3-6 months of employment.


Knowledge and experience transfer


Tell and demonstrate

Leading expert in a professional discipline or unique process.

Knowledge that sets them apart from their peers.


Development in a specific profession, e.g., Chemical Engineer

Junior member of the profession

Tell and discuss

Recognized as accomplished in a specific profession.

Knows what it takes to be successful in a profession.


Plan for moves to maximize career potential

High potential

Tell and discuss

Ability to influence selection decisions and career moves.

Higher level executive

Role Model

Living example of values, ethics, and professional practices.

Unique needs, population

Illustrate and discuss

Successful in job and life, enjoys working with others who need help.

A caring and concerned adult


Helping others think, learn and grow.


Facilitate self discovery

Supportive, listener, questioner, and collaborator.

A trusted ally

So what?

Looking at mentors who can perform very specialized roles expands the pool of potential mentors. Assume a research-based organization that depends on government grants for their existence has one individual who is head and shoulders above her peers in getting grants awarded. Wouldn?t it be wise to let this person perform in the "expert" mentor role? Setting up a group mentoring situation where she can transfer her knowledge, allow others to practice, and get feedback on how well they are learning and applying the lessons delivered. It would conceivably be very frustrating and inefficient to ask this person to be fulfill the "facilitator" role in a one-on-one mentoring relationships.

For mentors, partners, and those who administer mentoring programs here are some do?s and don?ts.



Clarify the purpose of the mentoring program and the individual mentoring relationships.

Expect a universally understood definition of mentoring to exist or, one definition/purpose to fit everyone?s needs.

Give mentors and their partners choices in what they can give and want from the relationship.

Expect mentors and partners to all have the same needs, and skills.

Play to the mentor?s strengths?let them do what they do best.

Expect mentors to want to or be able to play all the roles of a mentor.

Allow mentors and partners to select who they want to work with based on mutually defined needs and expectations.

Arbitrarily pair up individuals.

Accept that some of the mentoring roles can best be performed in a group.

Always expect mentoring to be a one-to-one thing.

Allow mentors and partners the choice?are they ready for or want this kind of help.

Force mentoring on your staff or everyone.

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Contact Matt Starcevich, matt@coachingandmentoring
Copyright, Center for Coaching & Mentoring