Kirsten Poulsen from Denmark found that mentoring relationship can be completely dysfunctional, due to participants holding different assumptions about mentoring and/or career development.
The old definition of career meant a route of advancement—a formal hierarchical progression within an occupational field/group. Concomitant hereto, based on literature from the USA, mentors are defined as individuals who are in advanced positions and committees to provide upward mobility and career support to mentees (often referred to a protégés—under care and protection). Mentoring research in the USA still focuses on the mentor as career sponsor, advisor/the expert and door opener. This notion of the mentor as important person—the Sage on the Stage—has the power, the network and the influence, is somebody from the establishment/the old boys' network. The more influential the mentor is; the bigger the impact on the protégé, who must demonstrate as being worth the trouble. This approach to mentoring, unfortunately cements the old way of doing and thinking.
In contrast, the contemporary meaning of career is the unfolding sequence of a person's work-life experiences. Literature from the UK portrays the mentor as guide, counsellor and coach—a person with relevant experience, who adds value to the mentee, but the latter takes responsibility for her/his own learning.
A large survey on mentoring best practices, done in 2003 in Canada, identified the primary roles of mentors as advisors, teachers, as role models and as a Guide on the Side—that support the mentee in transitions. Being a mentor entails helping to unveil the life dream of the protégé or less experienced person.
A third popular way to view mentoring is as a Learning Alliance, which takes the spotlight fully away from the mentor and focus on the action aspects, the learning for both the mentor and mentee. The former serve as counsellor, coach, ask relevant questions and tell/share good stories as inspiration for the mentee. Hopefully it is evident that there is a two-way street, and an exchange of learning—a mutuality. The relationship is open to exploration, extraordinary questions, innovative discussions and novel solutions.
Poulsen, K.M. 2006. Implementing successful mentoring programs: career definition vs mentoring approach. Industrial and Commercial Training, 38(5), 251-258.