Mentoring: What it is and what it's not

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Sterling and Associates
Greeley, Colorado
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In November 2007, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership and management issues entitled "The Baker's Potluck." This was the third series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen," the second being "The Baker's Menu") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's new series is entitled "Recipes for Success" and touches on a variety of leadership and management topics. Along with each article is an actual recipe for a favorite public works dish submitted by a member. Each recipe is a favorite from the members in their department. Give them a try.

"If you want to be a master, study what the masters have done before you. Learn to do what they have done—have the guts to do it—and you will become a master too." - Jos. J. Charbonneau

The anticipated retirement of a whole generation—the eighty million Baby Boomers—means a wave of positions will become vacant. The Boomers are being replaced by the Generation X'ers, which will produce an infusion of new workers into your workforce. How well will these new employees fit? How will they be trained? How will they learn their trade? Even though you provide them with the training, the Operation Manuals and the way your organization functions, how will they learn the skills needed to do their jobs? Here's an interesting statistic: A recent study, conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, concluded that an estimated 40% of all new managers failed within their first 18 months on the job. The new workers are not in the position to bring much experience to your organization. How will they learn from the mistakes and successes of those whom they are replacing? How will they capture the institutional knowledge of the organization? I'm glad you asked. A process that will help tremendously is called mentoring. Mentoring is investing yourself in tomorrow's leaders.

The word Mentor comes from Homer's classic work, The Odyssey. Mentor was an old friend of Odysseus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he placed Mentor in charge of his son, Telemachus, and of his palace. Mentor's role was to guide and inspire Telemachus as he prepared himself for his task as ruler of Ithaca. This is the source of the modern use of the word mentor: a trusted friend, counselor or teacher, usually a more experienced person. Some professions have "formal mentoring programs" in which newcomers are paired with more experienced people in order to obtain good examples and advice as they advance. Today mentors provide their expertise to less experienced individuals in order to help them advance in their careers, enhance their education and build their networks.

There are many perspectives on the modern definition of mentoring, especially since the relatively recent popularity of personal and professional coaching. Traditionally, mentoring might have been described as the activities conducted by a person (the mentor) for another person (mentee or protégé) in order to help that other person to do a job more effectively and progress in their career. The mentor was probably someone who had "been there, done that" before. A mentor might use a variety of approaches, e.g., coaching, training, discussion, counseling, etc. Today, there seems to be much discussion and debate about the definitions and differences regarding coaching and mentoring. By the way, I introduced a new term: mentee/protégé. The student of a mentor is called a protégé or mentoree. Sometimes the protégé is also called a mentee. A protégé is generally a younger person interested in learning all that the mentor has to offer. The protégé is someone the mentor regards highly enough to consider "worthy" of his or her time.

Simply put, a mentor is someone who helps us learn the ways of the world, someone who has our best interest at heart. A mentor is an advisor who teaches a new skill to another. A mentor also helps identify possible career obstacles and assists the mentee in overcoming them. So what is the difference between a mentor and a teacher? A teacher is paid to train us in a specific discipline, whereas a mentor is a friend who gives time and knowledge on many things without asking for anything in return.

George Haines recently wrote an article on being a role model ("Recipes for Success: Being a role model," APWA Reporter, March 2008). While we may think of our mentor as a role model, they are different. A role model may not even know that he or she is a role model. In his article, a role model is a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others. This is not to say that a mentor cannot be a role model; but a role model may not provide the same function as a mentor.

Reasons Why Mentoring Works

  • Experience is the Best Teacher: No one can argue that experience is the best teacher when it comes to learning. While reading about something or seeing it on television is interesting, having another human being explain it to you and answer your questions is a time-honored and preferred means of learning values, skills and information. If you are clever enough, you probably could figure out on your own much of what a mentor can teach you. But how long would it take? You might get there eventually, but why go through that difficult process when someone already may know the answers to your questions?

  • The Amazing Benefits of Synergy: Synergy is the ability of two or more people to achieve an effect that each is incapable of alone. Mentoring works partly because two people, if well matched, can create more energy and accomplish larger goals than one person can alone. You can use this synergy with your mentor or protégé to accomplish things you would never have attempted alone.

  • Protects the Mentor's Knowledge: The mentoring process allows the secrets, tips and tricks of an accomplished master to be passed from one generation to the next (think Boomers to X'ers) without the information finding its way into the public domain. It provides assurances to the mentor that his or her hard-earned knowledge will be passed on yet not made available to just anyone.

  • Part of the Natural Transition of Life: It is part of a person's vision of his or her life to be able to pass on what they have learned over the years. Mentoring someone can be pivotal in various stages of a person's career and gives individuals a chance of introspection and reassessment. The protégé becomes a reflection of the mentor's career; therefore, the selection of the right protégé is very important to the mentor.

How does all of this relate to you? What benefit can you incur from knowing how people who appear more talented and successful have managed to leverage their existing advantages? Mentoring survives because experience is the best teacher!

"The reasonable thing is to learn from those who can teach." - Sophocles

Can mentoring really make a difference? There are some of you who may think that mentoring is a pleasant enough idea in theory, and it sounds like it might work, but you are not going to invest precious time in trying something new unless you are sure it is going to work. The world of public works is ever-changing and there is no better time to begin putting together your system for staying one step ahead of those changes. The need for mentoring is greater today than ever before, and the new generation of workers in particular requires positive role models and guidance in order to succeed.

The Many Types of Mentoring
There are many types of mentoring. We will begin our discussion of the types by identifying some of the more common names as follows:

  • Peer mentoring
  • Guru
  • Disciple
  • Apprenticing
  • Buddy system
  • Coaching
  • Tutor
  • Teacher
  • Role models
  • Helper
  • Parents
  • Grandparents

But true mentoring is more than any of these. Mentoring can be formal and informal. Informal can be of the type that the mentor is not even aware that he or she is being mentored. We all have those types in our lives. George Haines indicates in his previous article that some of his mentors are Jim Valvano, Tony Snow and John Maxwell. I'm reasonably certain that those "mentors" are not aware that George looks up to them as mentors. But that certainly is one form of informal mentoring: mentoring by example.

A great Jewish teacher and philosopher, Maimonides, said that "charity comes in degrees of greatness, with the greatest charity of all being in a situation in which the donor and the recipient do not know one another." It is a momentary mentor who leaves a priceless gift; even a momentary mentor can change your life.

Returning to the discussion of the types of mentoring, the following types of mentoring are:

  • Primary: The first type is the one we think of as most formal and important. This is the person we focus on most, the person we ask first when it comes to any issue we cannot handle.

  • Secondary: Whereas a primary mentor offers general help, secondary mentors are those we go for specific areas of interest. They guide us through many different issues that might come up in life.

  • Structured versus informal: We can divide mentoring programs into two basic categories: structured and informal. Some organizations have a structured mentoring program. This type of program sets a specific set of rules or standards/guidelines that comprise a protocol and concentrates on very specific areas such as goals, assignments, and designated meeting times. The informal mentoring program would be characterized by a more personal, relaxed environment. It suggests a different type of setting under which structured mentoring occurs.

  • Momentary mentors: Momentary mentors may be with you for only a short period of time. They are people who make you stop and think for a moment—maybe longer, maybe forever.

  • Active versus passive: Active mentors get involved in your life. They look out for things that will interest you; they call you every so often and ask how you are doing. They are involved. A passive mentor might be a momentary mentor. Maybe he or she leaves you with just a quick pearl of wisdom, and they are in and out of your life as quickly as you can blink—but they can leave an impression on you.

  • Long-term versus short-term: Long-term mentors may be mentors for life. Even if they are not, you certainly rely on them for more than just quick answers. You are hoping they will help you develop, grow and mature. A long-term mentor will watch as you progress towards your goals. Your primary mentor is probably more likely to be long-term, whereas a secondary mentor is probably more apt to be short-term. Long-term mentor relationships are going to be more relaxed than short-term ones.

  • Group mentoring: Group mentoring tends to limit the size, tends to be closed to new members once they are formed, and may have strict prerequisites pertaining to specific training. Group mentoring may be less personal.

I would highly recommend a book written by Floyd Wickman and Terri Sjodin entitled Mentoring for a more detailed discussion on mentoring.

I want to emphasize that mentoring, whatever type you have, does not replace other types of training; it enhances it. I am not saying that in all these areas your mentor is the final word on the subject. Your mentor is a sounding board and a source of knowledge and maybe even wisdom. You still need to read continuously, go to seminars and be involved in continuous improvement in your specific area. If we want to achieve success, we need every tool available to us. Mentoring is a great tool.

What a Mentor is Not
Mentors are not the solution to every problem. Sometimes you need to obtain professional advice for which you must pay. Mentors are not paid for their services and there are times in which you may have to pay for advice. A mentor sometimes is a place to go for counseling on where to find experts. You don't look to a mentor to do your bookkeeping. You don't look to a mentor to take care of your legal problems. Your mentor is not your doctor. Your mentor is not your supervisor. And lastly your mentor should not be involved financially in your affairs, so don't ask them to. You don't confide your most personal problems to the mentor and expect them to solve your problems.

Benefits of Mentoring
Mentoring accomplishes the following:

  • Carries on your legacy
  • Keeps you sharp
  • Forces you to set an example
  • Enhances your value to others
  • Encourages creativity
  • You get by giving

Ultimately, as in most areas in life, what we get out of mentoring is what we put into it. Mentors can open doors, provide coaching and advice on setting goals, increase your success and productivity, and improve your career satisfaction. Remember, as Mary Rudisill says, "You become as your teacher, therefore, select with care."

Take some time to think about someone who has made a difference in your work life. Now thank them!

"A true mentor does two things: Believes in a person and has absolutely no feelings of competition." - Sue Pivetta


Haines, George, "Recipes for Success: Being a role model," APWA Reporter, March 2008

Wickman, Floyd & Sjodin, Terri, Mentoring, McGraw Hill, 1997

Roberts, Andy. (1999) "The Origins of the Term Mentor," History of Education Society Bulletin, No. 64, pp. 313-329.

William A. Sterling, a past Top Ten Public Works Leader recipient, can be reached at


14 whole eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 pint large curd cottage cheese
1 lb. shredded jack cheese
1/2 cup melted butter
4 ounces diced green chilies
11/2 teaspoons Grey Poupon mustard

1. Beat the eggs (after removing from the shells)
2. Add other ingredients and mix well
3. Pour into a well-greased glass baking dish
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes
5. Serve with salsa on the side
6. Can be made the night before

Preparation: 15 min.
Cook: 55 min.
Stand: 10 min.
Serves: 12

A good and easy breakfast item!

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Sterling and Associates
Greeley, Colorado