The New Faces of Mentoring

Two views of nontraditional mentoring.

Mentoring Main

TRADITIONAL MENTOR/MENTEE RELATIONSHIPS consist of veteran executives providing counsel and guidance to younger employees who want to succeed in their careers. But those traditional relationships aren’t always as effective for women, minorities, younger employees, and workers from outside the U.S. Here, two professors examine why mentoring is important, how nontraditional mentoring works—and why alternative paths can sometimes be the best ones to follow.


Learning how mentoring relationships work by studying commonalities and differences across cultures.


Do you have a mentor?  Often when I ask students or executives that question, I get puzzled looks from people who are confused about what a mentor is. Unless people have been formally paired with mentors in the past, many find it hard to recognize that mentoring can come in various forms and sometimes may not even be identified as “mentoring.”

In my own career, I have had a wide range of mentoring experiences. Having been mentored by professors and professionals in both India and the U.S., I have seen firsthand the commonalities and differences in these relationships across cultures. This has sparked my interest in understanding mentoring models to determine why some situations are positive and why some are not.


To be able to explain to individuals and organizations why mentoring is so important, I often first must explain what it is. Mentoring is an intense reciprocal development relationship that tradition-ally is fostered between a senior, more experienced individual and a junior, less experienced individual. Another form of mentoring can be found in peer or buddy programs, which schools and organizations use to help socialize and coach students or employees.

In business settings, mentoring fosters employee development, which helps companies improve quality, retain key workers, and meet the challenges of a complex global workplace. Mentoring also helps create a developmental culture within the organization, which again influences employee commitment and retention.

The vast research on mentoring suggests that it is associated with subjective and objective indicators of success, including salary, promotion, career satisfaction, and work-life balance. Indeed, mentoring can influence the three key levers of job performance and career success: ability, motivation, and opportunity.

Mentor support for protégés is typically classified under the two broad categories of career support and psychosocial support. As career supporters, mentors help mentees build their competencies and their networks by acting as coaches and sponsors, providing challenging assignments, and exposing protégés to high-visibility professional situations. As psychosocial supporters, mentors serve as role models and provide acceptance, confirmation, friendship, and counseling. These interactions help mentees become more efficacious at work, clarify their professional identities, and determine their career paths.

In my own research with George Dreher of Indiana University Bloomington, we show how mentorship—and its various components, such as sponsorship, coaching, and role modeling, for example—can result in five broad positive outcomes. It enhances mentees’ human capital, thereby improving their job performance. It enhances their movement capital as they learn about job opportunities. It enhances their sociopolitical capital and signals to key decision makers that they fit the job and the profession. It gives mentees path-goal clarity by helping them understand how to realize their career aspirations. Finally, it enables mentees to gain values clarity by reflecting on their professional identities and their career goals.


Mentoring can enhance career success for anyone, but it might be especially important for women in traditionally male-dominated industries. Mentoring can help women attain their highest professional goals and can help organizations fully leverage their diverse talent. In my research, I’ve observed that senior-male mentors have a stronger positive influence on the salary and career satisfaction of female protégés than on male protégés.

But not all women—and not all cultural groups—benefit the same way from mentoring. For instance, in studies I’ve conducted with managers and professionals in Taiwan and the U.S., I’ve found that gender, marital status, and cultural values have different associations with mentoring in different cultural contexts. More specifically, being married led to more favorable outcomes for female mentees in Taiwan than in the United States.

I also have studied the differences between mentoring dynamics in India versus those in the United States. I found that the Indians in my sample generally had a strong preference for informal mentoring and that the mentoring experience was likely to involve some family-related activities that fell outside of work. Most interestingly, I found that younger individuals in India preferred more egalitarian relationships, rather than those that were paternalistic or hierarchical.

Other differences emerged. For in-stance, in both the U.S. and India, gender similarity was positively linked to mentor support—that is, when mentor and mentee were the same gender, outcomes tended to be more positive. However, this link was stronger in the Indian sample. On the other hand, commonalities in interests and hobbies were more positively linked to mentor support in the U.S. than in India; that was also true for perceptions of similarity in attitudes, values, and personality. Anyone attempting to set up a mentoring program must keep in mind that its success will be greatly affected by the extent to which it incorporates cultural factors.

“Mentoring is a two-way process that benefits mentors and mentees.”


Business schools can help their students set out on a lifelong path of seeking and providing mentorship. While many MBA programs assign mentors to their students, schools often could do more by encouraging students to seek out mentors and sponsors even outside the formal program. Furthermore, the career services center could capitalize on the school’s alumni base to provide a diverse range of role models, career coaches, and industry executives who are willing to act as mentors.

At ESSEC Business School in Cergy, France, and Singapore, students in the Global MBA program are paired with experienced executives from the students’ professions or industries of interest. We believe it’s particularly important to invest time in matching mentors to students. Specifically, we want to understand the career needs and aspirations of the student and the motivations of the mentor. We want to know about any prior mentoring experiences either has had.

We also want to know the cultural norms the participants are most comfortable with. Some students might prefer to be in the same cities as their mentors; others look for mentors in the locations where they want jobs. Some students and mentors are comfortable having mentors and protégés from other countries, who don’t speak their native language, and who are living in different but manageable time zones. Other students and mentors are vocal about their desire to be paired with someone who lives nearby and speaks their native language, as this helps them build rapport and establish trust more quickly.

While no one can guarantee a perfect match, we aim to ensure one that is mutually agreeable to all parties. We emphasize that having an open mind and allowing time for the relationship to develop will prevent the pair from judging each other too quickly. We have found that in mentoring pairs that work well, students and mentors take the time to openly discuss what they hope to gain from the experience, how often they will communicate, what communication modes they will use, and how they would like to drive the process. They must discuss and set expectations right from the get-go.

At ESSEC, we believe that the mentoring relationship is a two-way process that benefits mentors as well as mentees. Students develop insights into their career prospects and opportunities as their mentors help them define their professional directions and build their professional networks. Mentors gain skills in cross-cultural leadership, while honing their coaching and communication abilities. Furthermore, mentors not only have the opportunity to impact future leaders, they also get the chance to take the pulse of a new generation of leaders and to understand how they think, what they feel, and what they want to do. For these reasons, all parties—mentors, mentees, schools, and workplaces—benefit from strong programs in mentoring.

Information about the research referenced in this article can be found at


Peer mentors are especially important for building diverse workforces, but their potential remains largely untapped.


While mentoring is a powerful tool for developing all individuals and leaders, it can be particularly useful in supporting diversity and inclusion. Research shows that individuals who have access to mentoring will experience better career and personal outcomes. How-ever, we often only focus on traditional one-to-one mentoring where a more experienced or higher-status individual shepherds along a less-experienced mentee. While these traditional or hierarchical mentoring relationships have benefits, more diverse mentoring approaches can have an even broader impact. Peer-to-peer mentoring can be especially useful as organizations become less structured and more networked, flat, and dynamic.

Peer or lateral mentoring relation-ships are valuable for four reasons. First, peers can provide job-related and technical knowledge, much of it learned from personal experience; this is the kind of knowledge that usually is not covered in the formal material distributed within the organization or by a traditional mentor. Second, peer mentoring relationships suit the expectations of millennials and emerging generations who have less traditional views of position, status, power, and hierarchy. Third, if traditional mentors are lacking, peers can be used to fill the gap. Finally, peers often are more readily available and accessible than traditional mentors. This is particularly important for women and people of color who frequently report not having access to mentoring within the organization.

Women and minorities can particularly benefit by seeking out mentoring relationships with three types of peers:

Informational peers. These mentors provide career advice as individuals learn the organization, develop their knowledge, or prepare for leadership roles. These peers are important not because of their titles or status within the organization, but because of the knowledge they possess.

Throughout my own career, I have found these mentors to be some of my most valuable resources, especially whenever I’ve moved into new positions, departments, or organizations. My informational peers helped me learn about the organization and its culture and gave me a great deal of additional information that could not be found on the company’s website and was not shared by a boss. Informational peers often reduced my learning curve, which accelerated my overall impact. And because I felt we were at an equal status within the organization, I felt less anxiety about sharing my lack of knowledge about certain things with peer mentors than I did with traditional mentors.

For instance, when I took on the role of associate dean for the Pitt Business undergraduate program at the University of Pittsburgh, a number of informational peers were extremely helpful to me during my transitional period. They provided support and knowledge about my new administrative responsibilities that I could not have gained through my previous faculty role alone.

Collegial peers. Unlike informational peers, who can be founts of knowledge, collegial peer mentors provide emotional support, share career-specific knowledge, and help individuals build crucial skills. Some of that social support and general career advice is similar to what individuals could receive from close friends and family members, but collegial peers also create opportunities for mutual support and mutual personal and professional development. That’s particularly true when collegial peers are in similar roles or professions.

By turning to collegial peers, workers also avoid anxiety that could arise from sharing certain information with hierarchical mentors. For example, I have coached individuals who have told me that they are unwilling to disclose their skill development needs to hierarchical mentors because they feared that information would be used against them in future performance reviews. However, they felt a sense of trust and psychological safety with their collegial peer mentors, so they could seek advice without fearing that they would suffer negative future consequences.

With collegial peers, it is often key to have some common bond within the relationship. This bond can come from sharing an industry, a background, or a certain type of experience, or it can be built along the lines of gender, race, age, family status, or career stage.

Whenever collegial peer mentors move into different roles, positions, and organizations, they can expand the professional networks for their mentees. One group of former MBA students told me that, while in the program, they formed a group called “share the candy.” They agreed to stay in contact as they progressed through their careers so they could provide support to each other and reach out if they came across opportunities that were good fits for anyone in the group. In this way, they formed a powerful network of collegial peers.

Special peers. These unique mentors develop strong interpersonal ties with their mentees, along with deep trust, a sense of bonding, and a personal connection. In these powerful relationships, mentors and mentees also develop more emotional intimacy and offer more personal disclosure than they do in other types of mentoring relationships. They build strong ties that take them beyond the one-way transactions that occur in networking-only relationships. It takes time to build great trust, and so most people will have only a few special peers throughout their careers.

“Special peer mentors provide a safe haven for sharing disclosures and working out difficult challenges.”

Special peers can be tremendous buffers for lessening the negative experiences, problems, and conflicts employees encounter throughout their careers—and they can be particularly important for minorities or people of color. Based on research co-authors and I conducted with high-potential African American managers, it is clear that special peers can provide an “unusual mirror” for examining difficult issues that arise for diverse individuals within organizations. In my experience, special peer mentors provide a safe haven for sharing, disclosure, and working out the difficult challenges that individuals do not feel comfortable discussing in the traditional hierarchical mentoring relationship.


Because mentoring is so important, Pitt Business recently launched a new initiative that uses a unique technology to connect students with our alumni world-wide. We provide background information, video training modules, and guides that enable both students and alumni to cultivate effective mentoring relationships. As part of this effort, we have deliberately included recent graduates to act as peer mentors for new students who may feel reluctant to reach out to experienced alumni. In addition, through our Pitt Business professional student organizations, we encourage peer-to-peer mentoring among current students as a potential source of special peer mentors.

With students, I often share my personal story of how I remain connected to a number of peers from my undergraduate college experience so we can share information and provide personal and career support. Now some years later, these individuals are in senior positions across all types of industries and organizations. These collegial peer-mentoring relationships have evolved from my undergraduate experience into a very powerful mentoring network.

Clearly, peer mentoring relationships offer a great and largely untapped opportunity for many rising executives and academics. Peers can discuss common dilemmas and challenges while they provide mutual learning and knowledge, and they can offer much more reciprocity than is usually found in traditional one-to-one hierarchical mentoring relationships. Peer mentors share information, give career advice, provide coaching about personal improvement, and direct each other to job opportunities, while they offer emotional support, feedback, and friendship. It is time to unlock the untapped power of these mutually beneficial peer mentoring relationships.

The research referenced in this article, “Interorganizational formal mentoring: Breaking the concrete ceiling sometimes requires support from the outside” by Audrey J. Murrell, Stacy Blake-Beard, David M. Porter Jr., and Addie Perkins- Williamson, appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Human Resource Management. It can be found at

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2018 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

Mentoring Aarti RamaswamiAarti Ramaswami is associate professor in the management department at ESSEC Business School in Cergy, France. She is also academic director of the Global MBA.
Mentoring MurrellAudrey J. Murrell is the associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration in Pennsylvania and is director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership. Her book Mentoring Diverse Leaders, co-authored with Stacy Blake-Beard, was published in March 2017 by Routledge.