Advantages and disadvantages of formal mentoring

by Katherine O’Donnell

Katherine O’Donnell, Scripture Engagement Consultant, SIL Tanzania

I recently completed the StrengthsFinder from Gallup and one of my strengths turned out to be ‘Developer’. This came as no surprise to people who know me well, who know what a buzz I get from teaching and seeing people grow. As the Coordinator of the Literacy & Scripture Engagement Department in Mbeya, Tanzania, you probably won’t be surprised to also hear that I have been informally mentoring my Tanzanian colleagues over the years, without even realising that what I was doing could be called ‘mentoring’. But now we have heard about ‘formal’ mentoring and the question is, how is this different from what I was doing before, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this formal mentoring?

Firstly, how is it different? I see a key difference as being the final goal. As I informally mentored my colleagues, my goal was simply to see them grow and develop in their job and in their relationship with God and I harboured hopes of them taking on more leadership responsibilities. Good goals, but they were mostly goals in my own head. Formal mentoring, on the other hand, involves the mentor and mentee agreeing on goals and time-frames and working towards specific growth in professional capacity (e.g. to becoming a specialist or consultant or leader), for the benefit of the organisation. Competency Based Certification (or the older Consultant Growth Plans) may help guide the mentor and mentee in setting the goals and making sure that the necessary competencies are ticked off for growth. 

I have now entered into a formal mentoring relationship with one of my colleagues, who we specifically want to see becoming a Scripture Engagement specialist and Department Coordinator. I am also formally mentoring someone in another entity towards becoming an SE Consultant. So are there any advantages to this formal mentoring?

Advantages of formal mentoring

While my experience is limited, here are some advantages that I feel are true for formal mentoring:

  • Building capacity in the entity and the leadership knows about it – formal mentoring agreements are done with the knowledge of supervisors and domain team leaders, so it goes beyond the local office to impacting branch-wide strategy. 
  • Intentionality with clear time-bound goals and planned meetings – informal mentoring can just drift along, but by formalising it you make sure things happen.
  • Achievement and celebration – it’s satisfying to tick things off a formal list that you have agreed on! Together you can celebrate the progress.
  • New or closer relationships – a mentor has the joy of getting to know the mentee in a deeper way than they might otherwise have done and of getting to know new people if they get involved in mentoring people outside of their entity.
  • Continuity – informal mentoring usually stops if the mentor leaves or changes role, but hopefully formal mentoring would continue as it is not necessary for the mentor to be on location or, if they really can’t continue, another mentor should be found because this is for more than personal development, it is for the benefit of the whole entity.

Disadvantages of formal mentoring

There are some down sides to it too, partly dependent on your personality or situation as a mentor:

  • Feels like a burden – as soon as you make something ‘formal’ it can feel like a big responsibility that you don’t have time for. It certainly is more of a time commitment, but I think it also has the potential for clearer and better results.
  • More administration – there is more admin involved in making sure mentoring is being coordinated across an entity and followed up.
  • Long-term commitment in the midst of an uncertain future – I found it hard to enter into a two-year mentoring agreement when our work permit situation is so uncertain. It leaves me feeling worried that I won’t be able to fulfill my commitment to the mentee. (Maybe this is because another of my Gallup Strengths is ‘Responsibility’!)
  • Anxiety – it increases my anxiety levels – will I be able to help this person grow in the way that their supervisor / entity leadership is hoping?!
  • Partiality – does it look like I am showing partiality to one colleague by only being in a formal mentoring agreement with one of them? When informally mentoring I could mentor them all together and it didn’t matter if some weren’t making as much progress because there were no formal goals. That’s different now.

Just yesterday I met with one of my mentees, and it was encouraging to see him moving forward in the areas we had discussed and taking the lead in conversation, so despite the potential challenges of formal mentoring, I think it’s worth giving it a go!

What is your experience? And how could we overcome some of the perceived challenges of formal mentoring? Share your thoughts by leaving a reply below.

2 thoughts on “Advantages and disadvantages of formal mentoring

  1. Thank you, Katherine for this thought-provoking post. I wonder if there are ways in which we can combine the advantages of both formal and informal mentoring in an organisation. According to a study I came across, organisational informal mentoring is more beneficial than formal mentoring. It is an interesting finding. But as you point out, formal mentoring has many advantages, too.

    I came across two articles that suggest that the best way for an organisation to invest in their mentoring program and to ensure that their staff is learning and is engaged at work is to combine informal and formal mentoring at the workplace. “This will allow measurability while also introducing an element of flexibility.” – the author says. The author suggests 4 ways to combine formal and informal mentoring:
    1. Set lenient deadlines but still document them
    2. Promote a change of scenery – get out of the office
    3. Allow mentees to choose their own mentor or consider hybrid matching (the administrator narrows down the choice of potential mentors to 2-3 and the mentee chooses from those)
    4. Encourage participants to connect outside of a formal program

    You can read the articles here:

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