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The term mentor is one with a long history. As related in Homer's Odyssey, Mentor was the noble friend whom Odysseus (known as Ulysses by the Romans) asked to protect his household (including his wife) and to educate and care for his son (Telemachus). Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, took the form of Mentor on occasion to give wise and useful advice to both Odysseus and his son—advice that would most likely have been rejected had Athena appeared in her true female form. Thus, the term mentor comes to us from an oral saga first told hundreds of years B.C.E. and encompassing behaviors of nurturance, counseling, and support.

Mentors and their protégés typically form a one-to-one relationship in which the mentor, older or more experienced than the protégé, facilitates upward mobility and provides advice, protection, and guidance. Mentors typically provide three types of support to their protégés. Vocational support enhances the career of the protégé by providing advice, sponsorship, or protection. Psychosocial support facilitates the social-emotional stability of the protégé by providing friendship, acceptance, and reassurance. Role modeling promotes growth of the protégé by demonstrating appropriate behavior.

Since the 1980s, many businesses, schools, and nonprofit organizations have instituted mentoring programs to facilitate retention and development of employees, students, and trainees. At the same time, researchers have assessed both formal and informal mentoring relationships to determine the benefits of being mentored and the conditions under which these benefits are most likely to accrue.

Mentoring has been found to have a positive effect on performance, employee retention, income, and career development. While it has been found that a formal mentoring program is more effective than no mentoring, there is evidence that in most instances, informal mentoring programs in which the protégé has the opportunity to choose his or her own mentor produce stronger results. Informal mentoring often results in long-term relationships, greater retention in the profession, more promotions, and higher salaries in the protégé's future career.

Benefits for the protégé are closely related to the quality of the relationship and the interaction between the mentor and protégé. The protégé may feel threatened in accepting guidance and advice, particularly in a formal mentoring program. For example, in a mentoring program for beginning teachers, the less new teachers perceived that their mentors respected their ideas and style of teaching, the less they perceived they could learn from their mentors, and the less satisfied they were with the mentoring program. However, new teachers who had the opportunity to equalize their relationships by helping their mentors expressed more satisfaction with the mentoring program and more likelihood of remaining in their professions than did those who were not able to establish this equality of relationship.

A formal mentoring program often requires mentors and protégés to be matched by some specific, objective criteria, such as field of training or department of employment. Such criteria may also play a role in an informal mentoring match-up, but most often it is “chemistry” that is the deciding factor. Similarities in such intangible areas as working style, ...
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