The Mentor and the Mentee: All Three Parties Win

the mentor and the mentee

Mentoring creates win-win opportunities for the participants – and for the company.


Mentoring  noun :

the practice of helping and advising a less experienced person over a period of time, especially as part of a formal program in a company.


Imagine an older you, at work. Where are you, what desk are you sitting at, and what role and level do you occupy?

Now, look around at some of your colleagues, especially those of a younger generation. Which do you earmark for success? Perhaps one has the potential for excellence – the passion and drive to be a high riser and then probably the desire to leave and start her own venture?

One of the fundamental differentiators in how people progress, and their choices along the myriad forks in the road that make up a lifetime at work, is mentoring.


Natural ability may not come naturally

Covid-induced economic stress and workplace flux has illustrated how we appreciate and rely upon one another at work. In that sense, it has reinforced the value of mentoring as a pillar of a company’s culture, or, where the mentor and mentee do not work for the same organisation, as an enabler of performance and personal development.

From a purely rational perspective, it’s also worth underscoring the necessity of mentorships to instil competency and self-belief. In one of a series of video clips entitled ‘My Rookie Moment’, Johannesburg-based business consultant Ache Leke admits he was reluctant to present to clients. His manager told him he needed to work on this. “Instead of running away from [presenting], I needed to confront it.” His first presentation, he thought, went fairly well – until he got asked a question.

Being a “rookie” provides these moments of learning; Leke received mentorship as to how not only to enter the fray, but what to do when stumped by questions during or after a presentation. To experienced professionals these occurrences are routine, natural – but to an inexperienced employee, how their first few presentations unravel will stay with them for the rest of their careers.



Simplistically, leadership implies getting others to willingly do what needs to be done. The better prepared, engaged and skilled these other employees are, the better the outcome for the leader – and the organisation, including its future requirements.

Also of benefit to the company, studies show that people remain with their employer for longer, and are more productive, when they receive consistent counsel from senior leaders. For a company, then, a solid mentoring program is also part of a retention strategy.

Interestingly, academic research conducted for the Centre for Creative Leadership confirms, too, that senior leaders rated as effective mentors themselves achieved higher performance ratings from their executive. In essence, developing others is also a powerful contributor to self-improvement.


“Can I get your advice on something, please?”

We tend to think of mentoring in traditional ways; the word conjures up the image of a wise uncle, keen to impart knowledge over a leisurely lunch, and then, back at the office, passing on instructions while the apprentice simply observes.

There’s a role for observation – and for unpressured time to listen. But modern businesses understand that forging the next generation of leaders is multi-layered and -disciplined, and requires considerable planning and a rigourous process.


A mentoring plan

It’s important to have a framework for the mentor-mentee relationship. In larger companies, talent or learning officers should design structured but flexible mentorship programs involving career pathing, networking, and personal growth, to help build global teams and a unified culture. In smaller enterprises, or within individual arrangements, mentor and mentee should agree on the parameters of the relationship and clarify what each hopes to gain – and offers to give – towards mutual, if not entirely symmetrical, development.


Elements of mentorship

A relationship of trust. With increasing pressure on productivity, and degrees of separation in the gig economy, modern mentoring must include a genuine concern for the mentee’s overall well-being. Extensive research has been done on the importance of bringing emotional and cognitive intelligence, and social sensitivity, into a mentoring role. These characteristics are associated with positive and resonant leadership.

Reciprocity. Issues and problems are often complex, or multi-layered, and even simply listening can require dedication and hard work on the part of the mentor. As such, the mentee should always remain cognisant that they are gaining from another’s time and energy. Their commitment deserves reciprocation. It’s about give and take.

Or, give and give. There’s an interesting dynamic at play in a mentor-mentee relationship. Socrates, the father of philosophy and a great mentor to many ancient Greek scholars, routinely debated his students – not to show them that they were wrong, but rather to open their eyes to how little they knew. Being improved isn’t always pleasant, notes Agnes Callard, University of Chicago philosophy professor.

This cuts both ways. A true mentor understands that her knowledge in certain areas may be greater than the mentee, but it is still small, and subject to ongoing learning. As Callard puts it, everyone loves their own wisdom – the wisdom we think we have.

The best mentoring relationship, then, may be understood as an act of collaborative inquiry.

Routines, or at least regularity. High performance starts with the foundation of habitual good practices. Regular check-ins keep dialogue going, and avoid an accumulation of issues, or backsliding.

But don’t hesitate to veer tangentially. Learning is not linear. Sometimes, mentors can be the switch that activates an idea, or the experienced hand that shows the way. In his book That Will Never Work, Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph tells of his learning from an early mentor that it is better to test multiple ideas quickly with low respective investments, rather than ramping up risks by locking into one idea. Instead of buying an expensive IBM, his mentor advised him to use third-party fulfilment to trial a new concept; it would soon be evident if the idea didn’t work, and the loss would be in the region of $15,000 rather than the $500,000 cost of a giant mainframe.

This solution seeded the notion of ‘validation hacking’ as part of Randolph’s philosophy at Netflix: the willingness to innovate around, and test, every aspect of the company’s strategy, and not be emotionally attached to a single idea.

Time. More generally, being a mentor is about being available. Mentees don’t always need a sounding board; sometimes they just need reassurance, or to connect.


Where mentorship may go awry

The fine line between mentoring and coaching. Some relationships require more of the latter to make effective progress in fulfilling the intent of the former. But absolutes aren’t helpful, and cajoling is likely to reframe the relationship as one of trainer and trainee.

And whilst habits are good, high horses aren’t. Neither party should be inflexible as to how the relationship mutates, and not all issues are clear-cut. The best mentees are those who challenge the mentor, and the best mentors are those who accept the challenge. “The critical thing to being mentored is to walk a careful balance,” cautions Randolph. He’s referring to more experienced employees, and entrepreneurs, but the advice holds broader truth: “On the one hand, the reason that you are successful in your business is that you’ve been listening to people tell you that will never work, and you have enough self-confidence to persist. On the other, you have to be the kind of person who can listen to the advice and truly consider it before you accept or reject it. When I’m selecting a mentee, I’m looking for somebody who can demonstrate that they’re open to other ways of thinking about a problem, whether they take my advice or not.”

Limiting mentoring between two people. Actually, a mentee may prefer to have a network of mentors. This comes back to definition: the traditionally, certainly, mentorship was linear; today, however, there is fluidity, and mentorship relationships can exist in specialist areas simultaneous to a generalised workplace arrangement, in turn separate to life-skills ambits.

Narrow scope. Your mentor doesn’t even have to work with you – nor, even, in the same industry. This builds from the point above. Being great at work, today, requires cultivating all-roundedness. Seeking mentors external to the organisation may be important, because an outside perspective is often invaluable. Be aware, however, that mentors are usually able to provide the most relevant and appropriate guidance when there is a relationship with the mentee. Knowing one another, at least to some degree, helps to refine the advice, or guide the appropriate direction.

Assuming only newer employees need mentoring. Everyone can benefit from some form of mentorship. Industry disruption and workplace transformation is now commonplace, and disorientation, or the need to navigate new ways-of-working, can be smoothed by seeking guidance. There is always someone who has walked, before, in your shoes.

Furthermore, in a form of reverse mentoring, a mentee has much to offer the mentor. Reverse mentoring is a powerful growth experience: beyond transformational digital skills transference, for example, the mentor is reminded of the need for humility, and the mentee gains self-belief.

Still, mentorships exist primarily for the mentee to learn. This may, at some culturally conservative institutions, necessitate treading circumspectly. But the truth is that a mentee has much to offer, and participation is vital. An engaged mentee practises what’s been discovered via the mentor, probes for mutual discoveries, and offers perspectives of his own.


Honour or obligation – or both?

Lastly, we should recognise the value of mentoring in the context of socio-economic inequalities. Indeed, mentoring programs may also be seen as integral towards greater inclusivity.

Hybrid mentoring regimens may work more appropriately in these situations. By combining flexible work-study blocks with a ‘Learn, Apply, Perform’ (LAP) approach and group problem-solving sessions, the conventional mentoring element can solidify and round out a holistic upskilling program.



Mentorship practices, in whatever form and nuance, offer much to all parties – the company and its leadership, the mentor and the mentee. Perhaps inadvertently, Gale Halsey, Chief Learning Officer of global vehicle manufacturer, Ford Motor Company, notes that – although convinced they work to raise retention and engagement levels and boost productivity – Ford doesn’t try to measure financial returns on mentorship initiatives. “Our ROI is knowing our people are learning from each other and that our leaders understand the employee experience.”

Mentorships involve a balance of obligation and opportunity. And what happens when they work? Simply, mentoring means better people. And hence better work.

When a mentor truly gives of her time and expertise, and a mentee accepts these graciously and diligently, neither is thinking, “What’s in it for me”. It’s about “What’s in it for us?”



Written By:

Gavin Olivier

Senior Partner and Managing Executive


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