Coaching Mentoring Conversation

The Leader as Mentor: playing the wisdom role


The Meaning of Mentoring

In Homer’s ancient Greek classic, The Odyssey, Ulysses, wily monarch of Ithaca and fabled inventor of the famous wooden horse, is off to give the Trojans an epic thrashing. So, he leaves the education of his son Telemachus, in the wise hands of his trusted old advisor, Mentor, who raises him in the kingly conventions of Bronze Age Ithaca, sharing his experience, lore, knowledge and wisdom.

It’s still what Mentoring mainly means today where a generally more senior person, more widely experienced and deeply knowledgeable, elects to help a mostly more junior someone, to develop their capabilities and achieve the goals that matter to them in their calling.

Echoes of ancient Mentor still reverberate round the roles modern mentors play… guide, advisor, teacher, role-model, encourager, supporter, protector and so on. Mentoring it seems, is somewhat “slippery” to define (Daloz 1986). But one of its most distinguishable traits modern commentators mention, harks back to legend. For instance:

  • It’s a “helping relationship between a more experienced, senior person, who shares their learning experiences with someone more junior” who wants to “learn the ropes” and is willing to be guided and advised (Whitely 1992, MacLennan 1999, O’Brien 2003) on the best way to achieve their personal, professional and career potentials
  • “Mentoring is where a more senior individual forms a developmental relationship (with) a junior to share information, role model, guide, provide feedback, appraise (and) teach all the facts that enable them to perform effectively.” (MacLennan 1999)
  • “A mentor is someone who passes on experience and wisdom by coaching, counselling, guiding or partnering.” (O’Brien 2003) “A deliberate pairing of a more-skilled or experienced person with a less-skilled or experienced one, with the mutually agreed goal of having the less-skilled person grow and develop specific competencies.” (Murray, 2001, p xiii)

Oh, and I forgot to add: you don’t have to be ancient these days to be a mentor. But you do need a bit of personal and professional mastery and experience under your belt. Of course, there’s always the dubious contention between academic fundamentalists as to whether coaches can mentor, or mentors can coach (Landsberg 1996; Tyler 2004).

Honestly, does this matter that much? Although some try to regiment a distinction between mentoring and coaching, in action, they really share quite a few common elements and skillsets. In my two-day Mentoring Master Class though, I elaborate on my 7-Cs Model of Mentoring, look at the 8 main roles mentors play; and a few different personal mentoring styles and stances that I hope helps distinguish somewhat between coaching and mentoring (that in my view doesn’t really matter that much anyway).

So, I thought I’d share a few insights from that program to help you navigate potential mentoring relationships you may play as a wise leader.


7-C’s Mentoring Model

My approach to mentoring is emergent, free-flowing and at the same time, structured and directed.

Mentoring for me rests first and foremost on a resonant and respectful relationship that encourages relaxed, open dialogue and conversation. It’s a narrative where meanings, learning, insights, stories and solutions emerge as we keep talking and we both learn something about each other.

Beneath this free-flowingness though, there’s a robust, underlying structure, informed by a variable set of tools and actions I draw on to make mentoring more than talk, and lead us to deep reflection and challenging, rigorous practice, behaviour change and learning through action, without which nothing changes.

Although each of us will probably take a different learning path because our mentoring contexts will be different – at a deeper level, all mentors (and coaches) tend to follow a similar, general process. My 7-C’s Model of Mentoring is a broad road-map of stages you can work through – whatever the mentoring context or focus.


The 1st stage is Commencing

It’s start-up. First contact. Both of you are likely to lack a bit of confidence – be hesitant about how this meet-up will go, and where it should go, or end-up, for that matter.

  • It’s a chance to sort out the 4P’s – Purpose, Protocols, Parameters and Perspectives on what we both want to get out of this mentoring relationship.
  • You also begin to get a broad idea of challenges those you’re mentoring may face, what they expect, and ideas about their goals (or at least broad areas) they want to focus on.
  • But don’t expect these to be fully formed by the end of this session. Wait a while. Your conversation and conceptualizing will develop and may gradually change shape over time.

Connecting is the 2nd Stage

It’s crucial in all mentoring relationships. It’s not separate from the first stage – and you’ll constantly connect and re-connect throughout the process.

  • You get to know each other, a prelude to trust. Personalise it. Explore who you each are and exchange a bit about what we’re each like.
  • Discuss what ‘unconditional positive regard’ means to you (it’s the basis of respect) and exchange ideas on what kind of atmosphere or relationship climate you each want.
  • You need to establish yourself as a supportive, encouraging, neutral, non-judgemental and caring person who at the same time, will challenge, guide and direct as needed.

Stage 3 is Clarifying

The whole point of mentoring is to help people improve what they do: bridge gaps, build skills, bolster constructive pedagogical behaviour and remove barriers to people achieving their best. And you use conversations to do this.

  • Real mentoring resides with the continual rounds of conversations you have with people you’re helping.
  • Done well, you can help them achieve goals, build skills and talent, keep people on track and encourage better classroom performance and personal growth.
  • To do that, you have to learn to have constructive conversations together – establish the protocols and practices you’ll use to have deeper dialogue and dig down on issues.

Stage 4 is Centering

It’s centering in to consolidate focus and goals. It’s not the first time you’ll have discussed goals. You’ve been talking about them since you first met.

  • Now it’s time to ground goals that have been hovering around and get down to specifics.
  • By end Stage 4 the person will be able to define goals – concrete, behaviourally specific and positive – and perhaps first actions they will take to achieve these.

Stage 5 is concerned with Collaborating

You’re guiding, advising, recommending and encouraging but doing it in a way that is collaborative rather than imposing.

  • Advice-giving is tentative and you hold back from giving it till you’ve explored their ideas.
  • You guide people to their own solutions rather than succumb to work it all out for them.


The 6th Stage is Challenge and Confront

Again, it’s not as if you wait until this particular point to challenge. You may be doing it already, but you do need to build sufficient trust and safety before you can go about it openly.

  • This is where your mental modelling and agility skills come into play as you help others you mentor see their mental models and reflect on how useful or not they are.
  • You give feedback on what you observe about their thinking, behaviour, actions or approach (What things do you think there are about your thinking or approach we should unpack?)
  • And you confront, if people evade or blame others, rather than look at their own contribution.)

Stage 7 is Completing

…and it’s about those times – whether in the middle of the mentoring cycle or at the end – where we help the person we’re mentoring take action and reflect on their results.

  • You identify priority issues and actions, then assist them with try-outs and see how they work. You’re using the basic action learning cycle to do this.
  • You start with a few actions and over time perhaps encourage people to take on more challenging actions that stretch them.
  • Establish timeframes, help them develop a Mentoring Action Plan (MAP) and agree ways to test and monitor try-out actions and outcomes they get.

Mentoring Role Modelling


Mentoring makes moments where both of you can take some time-out space from a hectic schedule and pause to reflect, think together and share insights, ideas, experiences and sentiments. They benefit from your calm wisdom – and you benefit from the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve potentially made a difference to someone else’s life path.

I’m sure you don’t need reminding that you’re a role model for those you mentor. They may very likely follow your lead (or some of it anyway) and look to you for guidance, clarity, emotional support. They’re also likely to pick-up other things – concepts, beliefs, practices, standards, values – and some of your style too.

  • Mentors develop people by instilling in them sounds habits of inquiry and self-reflection that stimulate deep-thinking and healthy habits of self-questioning.
  • They act as sounding boards, listening and asking constructive and challenging questions that help people see other perspectives, alternatives and options.
  • They help bring to the surface deeper patterns, underlying meanings, concealed emotions, identity dramas and self-defeating beliefs and other blocks and barriers that may be at work.
  • They also help evoke in people other positive emotions, thoughts and attribute that help them persist, focus, bounce-back, persevere and tap reserves of resilience.

Just like there’s no strict guidelines on how to mentor, there are no rigid rules around roles you will play either. As I’ve said, mentoring is fluid, changeable and emergent.

Sometimes, it can sound like mentoring will be a one-way learning street – only about the more junior or beginning teacher becoming more capable and knowledgeable. But in reality, it’s about two people in a developmental relationship who are supporting mutual learning and growth.

Hopefully your mentoring relationship generates a bit of mutual enthusiasm for both of you about a particular field of professional inquiry. Rather than mentoring being an extra chore you have to take on, it’s really a privilege and an opportunity to be playing the wisdom role as a leader….

Our Mentoring Master Class amplifies on each of the main stages of the 7Cs Mentoring Model that helps you to navigate, structure, adapt and apply the model’s planning grid to your specific mentoring process – regardless of context, what the mentoring is intended to do, or what particular steps or tools you use.

See our on-line Course Calendar at for dates our public clinics are coming up in your area. And if you’ve a group of 10 or more, we’re happy to come to you. Use our on-line Enquiry form or call Bill Cropper direct to discuss arrangements for an in-house clinic at a venue of your choice.



More on our Mentoring Master Class on-line at



BILL CROPPER – Director, The Change Forum
Tel:     +61-(0)7-4068 7591
Mob:  +61-(0)429-687 513
Email: [email protected]    

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top