ATD Blog

The Evolution of Mentoring

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In the late 1980s, I was hired to do some executive leadership development consultancy work at a large Fortune 500 company.  I remember being on site and walking down a hallway, which was lined with portraits of past company officers and executives, on the way to the executive office area.  What struck me was the lack of diversity represented in the portraits. I have to believe that this company has since taken these paintings down, given the fact that all the subjects of these portraits were white males of some experience and maturity. 

It was this overly homogeneous business environment that prompted leaders to finally realize that gender diversity was sorely needed in the C-suite of organizations of all types—government, for profit, and not-for-profit.  It was with this realization that the practice of corporate mentoring was born. Although don’t let the name fool you, this was mentoring for adults in any organization type, not just for-profit corporations.  

In the beginning

In an effort to promote better gender diversity in leadership, aspiring young women were matched with and given access to senior executives in an attempt to break the glass ceiling and help female employees rise to executive ranks.  Mentoring was administered by HR and limited to only a select female population, which was handpicked to participate.  Mentoring, thus, became the new way to help women progress more quickly in their careers.

By the mid 1990s, the practice of mentoring in the workplace had gained some additional traction and acceptance, and had become more commonplace.  Sponsorship and career progression, the driving forces behind the practice, remained the same.  The special audiences invited to participate in mentoring were expanded to include other minorities, besides solely women, and other small populations of high-potential talent.  

The role of HR in facilitating mentoring was to control and constrain access to senior knowledge assets, providing a now-expanded set of “special” populations access to senior leadership in an effort to help them advance their careers. 

Mentoring grows


Enter the Internet in the early 2000s.  This is when we saw the emergence of e-mentoring technologies, which simplified HR’s job of matching and connecting mentees to mentors.  This helped organizations expand their mentoring populations once again and increase the size of their high-potential and diversity programs. Still, the purpose and utility of mentoring programs could be summed up in two words: career progression. 

Additionally, by the mid-2000s, mentoring still only affected 1 to 5 percent of an organization.  In fact, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management website states: “Within the Federal Government, mentoring is often a component in developmental programs like the Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program (SESCDP), Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) Program, or the USDA Graduate School Executive Leadership Program (ELP).”  This is a very limited audience for what could be a very pivotal developmental experience.

In 2008, we finally saw a shift in attitude around mentoring and a change in its purpose from career progression to self-directed development and just-in-time performance support. In leading-edge corporate and government organizations, we began to see mentoring expand vertically and horizontally to include non-traditional mentoring relationships.  Peers started ti mentor their peers. Millennial and Gen X generations challenge traditional mentoring paradigms by connecting with older mentees and “reverse mentoring” them in areas like technology and social media. And people began to self-organize into group mentoring learning engagements.   

As a result, enabling technology that supported a more inclusive and dynamic practice was created.  Industry thought leaders, like myself, came out and called for a more modern approach to mentoring and the need to leverage enterprise informal and social learning.  Indeed, this is what some of our government clients have done.  


For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Office of Regulatory Affairs provides employees with access to their Open Learning Network that runs on social learning and modern mentoring technology.  Their goal is to empower employees to take advantage of the software and drive their own career path.  This has helped them build a culture of learning where every employee can get involved. 

Moving forward

I am happy to say that this modern mentoring mindset and acceptance of social learning as a powerful learning and development tool has grown substantially in the last few years.  That said, there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made. A large majority of HR professionals and organizational leaders still only see mentoring as a tool for sponsorship and career progression or a practice to be used solely in support of targeted formal programs.  

There will always be a place for traditional mentoring (think mentoring circa 1988-2008)in organizations to serve small populations. In this way, mentoring in its “traditional” sense is not going away.  However, the focus now needs to shift to how we can use mentoring, coaching, and peer learning practices that have worked for us in the past to develop the other 90 to 99 percent of our organization that is not part of a special high-potential or diversity program.  

Mentoring, like dial-up Internet, needs be modernized to maximize its potential.  Modern mentoring is collaborative learning for the masses, and it can be an organization’s tool for developing an agile, connected, future workforce. 

Want to know more? Join me on March 19 for the webinar, “Creating a Modern Mentoring Culture.”  Register here

About the Author

Randy Emelo is the founder and chief strategist at River, a Denver-based company that builds mentoring and social learning software. He has more than 25 years of experience in management, training, and leadership development, and is a prolific author, speaker, and thought leader on topics related to collaboration, mentoring, social learning, and talent development.

Throughout the years, Randy has embarked on a military career with the U.S. Navy, led leadership development work with nonprofits in the Americas, and helped Fortune 500 companies build mentoring and learning cultures in their organizations.

Randy holds a master’s degree in organizational design and effectiveness from Fielding Graduate University (formerly The Fielding Institute) in Santa Barbara, CA. Randy’s book, Modern Mentoring, is available now from ATD Press. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @remelo.

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