Mentors’ Corner: How does mentoring “work,” and under what conditions does it work best?

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 12.10.23 PMEditors Note: In this column Gail Manza and Susan Patrick draw from their new book Mentor’s Field Guide, which is framed as a series of 67 answers to the most common questions that arise in youth mentoring. 

Question 6. How does mentoring “work,” and under what conditions does it work best?

Based on the seminal research of Jean Rhodes, we know that mentoring is a mediated process in which the relationship itself serves as a development tool (Rhodes, 2002, 2005). This means that mentoring works through the vehicle of the unique relationship that develops between a particular mentor and a particular mentee: in other words, through the relationship that develops between you and your mentee. It also means that mentoring works when your relationship works. Since the mentor-mentee relationship stands at mentoring’s core, it is vital to understand three things: what a good mentoring relationship looks like, what helps to create productive mentoring relationships, and what is likely to do the opposite.

This is an area where researchers have a great deal to offer current and aspiring mentors. Compelling research tells us that a meaningful relationship between a mentor and mentee is one marked by trust and mutual regard and understanding (Rhodes, 2002, 2005). Our experience tells us that productive mentoring relationships have another essential ingredient, namely, opportunities to have fun. Very few enduring mentoring relationships seem to last without it. There is also a strong and growing body of knowledge telling us that mentoring relationships are more likely to take root and thrive if (1) mentor-mentee expectations are aligned; (2) mentors and mentees are well matched; (3) mentors have access to a support system that can help them prepare for the mentoring experience; (4) mentors are able to adopt a good mix of authority and friendship in their relations with their mentees; and (5) mentors have a source for and ongoing access to “advice and counsel” from those with the experience and expertise to help them employ best practices, avoid common pitfalls, and handle any rough spots that emerge.

In contrast, factors that we believe thwart the development of good working relationships relate to the most practical of considerations (Are you reliable?) and the decidedly personal (Are you mentoring to help a young person succeed or to direct his development?). Good working mentoring relationships rarely result when mentors find it hard to be where they say they will be . . . when they say they will be there. No doubt about it, reliability is key. Even more rarely do strong relationships result when mentors simply don’t enjoy the company of young people or fancy themselves as drill sergeants assigned to shape kids up. Good mentoring is unlikely to be the product of a relationship in which the adult doesn’t appreciate that young people are young people, with all the hopes, anxieties, energy, and routine highs and lows that attend the passage from childhood to young adulthood. In contrast, the mentors who are considered most successful are those characterized as “accepting young people on their own terms” (Philip & Hendry, 2001).

So, it’s important to reflect upon your inclinations before plunging in. It is equally important to note that research and our longtime experience both indicate that good mentoring relationships are a product of two things: doing and accomplishing things together (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2010) and time. In fact, the duration of a mentoring relationship may be the single best benchmark of mentoring effectiveness (Rhodes, 2002). Mentoring relationships that last less than a year generally produce few benefits for young people. But, of course, there are exceptions. These include beneficial mentoring programs that make it clear from the start that the mentoring relationship has a definite start and finish date or are quite narrowly focused, for instance a mentoring initiative designed to help a young person successfully navigate the college application process.  This is so because researchers are finding that program intent and whether relationships last as long as intended from the start seem to play a key role in outcomes (Keller & Pryce, 2010; Larose, Tarabulsy & Cyrenne, 2005). Nonetheless, because of the centrality of the mentoring relationship, we devote a full chapter to the subject. Head to chapter 2 if you’d like to explore more detailed thinking now. Otherwise, read on.


For more information, please see the The Mentor’s Field Guide. The book is published by Search Institute and available as a book or ebook at See the table of contents for full range of questions and answers.