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Exploring career mentoring and coaching
Exploring career mentoring and coaching

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1 A brief history of mentoring

An old postage stamp featuring Odysseus and the Sirens from Greek Mythology.
Figure 1 When mentoring began

To understand why mentoring is used so extensively today, it can be useful to know a little about its history.

It is widely cited that the concept of mentoring originated with the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. In this Ancient Greek epic poem, dating back around 3000 years, Odysseus entrusts his young son Telemachus to the care of Mentor, his trusted companion, when he goes to fight in the Trojan War. Unexpectedly, he is away for decades and during that time Mentor nurtures and supports the boy.

Roberts (1999) argues that Homer does not give Mentor characteristics that we would associate with mentoring – describing him simply as an old friend of Odysseus. Instead, he proposes that a French author, Francois Fenelon, is responsible for this popular view of Mentor. He developed the character in his 1699 novel Les Adventures de Telemaque, referring to Mentor as a ‘guide and instructor’ and ‘another father’.

McKimm, Jollie and Hatter (2007, p. 2) make a historical link to the Middle Ages, when they explain that mentoring ‘became common practice in the time of the guilds and trade apprenticeships when young people, having acquired technical skills, often benefited from the patronage of more experienced and established professionals’.

In the 1970s, business people and researchers started to recognise ‘the vital role mentors play in the development of corporation executives’ (Roche, 1979).

From the 1970s onwards, mentoring has been increasingly used in the workplace – traditionally to help a junior member of staff to progress.

Activity 1 Dumbledore and Harry Potter

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Choose a well-known mentoring relationship and describe what characteristics you think make it a relationship of mentor and mentee.

You could choose a historical pair, for example:

  • Robespierre mentor to Napoleon
  • Socrates mentor to Plato.

Or a fictional relationship, for example:

  • Yoda mentor to Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Dumbledore mentor to Harry Potter.

If you’re in need of inspiration, The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] has compiled a list that might help.

Use the box below to record your thoughts.

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Although these relationships are historical or even fictional, it is interesting to consider how stories of mentoring are often framed. They almost always involve an older, wiser individual advising a young, ambitious, sometimes foolish one! Usually, they are both men. These days, mentoring relationships are much more likely to cross boundaries of gender, race, ethnicity etc. In some organisations, an older, more established member of staff is mentored by a new recruit.

In the next section, you’ll explore the power of mentoring by reviewing some well-known case studies in more detail.