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Mentoring and Coaching: What about the person being mentored?


The essence of mentoring (and coaching) is a relationship between people. At the center of that relationship is the individual being mentored. All too often mentoring focuses on the mentor – what do they do, how do they do it, where do we find them (and rightly so – it's hard to have a mentoring programme without mentors...). However this overlooks one main issue – that the main point of mentoring is to help the person who is being mentored. Who are they? what they do? Often, mentoring or coaching programmes pay little attention to the role of this person - a little strange, as the success of the programme is entirely dependent upon them!

What is this person to be called?

Let's start with the trickiest issue of all regarding the person being mentored – what are you going to call them?

The main alternatives currently in use are:

  • Mentee
  • Mentoree
  • Protégé

None of which are frankly very thrilling (or descriptive).

Other options include learner, follower, student, apprentice, to name a few. These are usually used in specific environments such as schools or trade and professional organisations. The three listed above (mentee, mentoree and protégé) are the most commonly used terms in commercial organisations.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will use the word 'protégé' to describe the person who is being mentored, however you can make up your own phrase if you wish. One company I know calls the people being mentored 'Explorers'. Another client made up a the phrase 'mentege's' (a cross between a protégé and a mentee, I guess...). You can use whichever phrase seems appropriate for you, but make sure whichever phrase you choose is used consistently.

What does a protégé do?

Unfortunately, often very little thought is given to the characteristics or traits of an ideal protégé. I say 'unfortunate', because so often, a protégé needs a model - an example - to aspire to. For most organisations, a description of that 'role model' will be very specific to that organisation - its culture, ethos and goals. We'll look in a moment at how to define the characteristics of an ideal protégé that are specific to your organisation. For the moment, let's note the characteristics of an ideal protégé that are common to most organisations.

In our experience, these 'global' characteristics are found in someone who:

  1. Actively seeks personal and career development;
  2. Wants to have a mentor (or coach);
  3. Is teachable - listening and reflective; and
  4. Is committed to action in response to what they have learnt.
  5. In our experience, these four characteristics are the minimum requirements for a protégé to play his or her role in a mentoring or coaching relationship. Note that they say nothing of intelligence or capability levels. Mentoring is not about brilliance on the protégés part, it is about development, and everyone can develop, wherever they are starting from. Notice also that these characteristics are not indicative of the relative seniority of the mentor and the protégé.

    Using only the characteristics listed above, it would not be possible to tell if the protégé was the junior, or co-equal of the mentor within a corporate structure. Mentoring is not necessarily about seniority either – development is often assisted by peers, as well as those in a more senior position.

    Other characteristics which have been used by mentors we've worked with in describing their ideal protégé are that they:

  6. Are passionate about fulfilling their promise as individuals, both within and outside the
  7. Are diligent in acquiring knowledge and skills;
  8. Seek to uphold the ethos and standards of their chosen employment, trade or profession.

Active or passive?

The protégés on your mentoring programme can be active or passive in the mentoring relationship. That is to say, they may respond to the mentor's urging and prodding, or they may themselves set the pace and push the mentor for results. In debriefing successful mentoring relationships, mentors often comment positively regarding protégés who have taken the initiative in the relationship by establishing schedules, dates and developmental milestones.

The protégé's personal attitude is the main contributing factor in establishing whether or not the protégé is active or passive in the mentoring relationship. However, organisational culture also plays a role, and you should at least consider whether or not you anticipate the protégé being active or passive in the mentoring relationship.

Describing protégés tends not to be as precise an exercise as describing mentors. Here's an exercise that should help you produce a tentative definition of what you want from a protégé in around 15 minutes...


Successful mentoring programmes require the selection of successful protégés. In this exercise you will arrive at a description of what you expect from your protégés. Don’t worry if your responses to the questions below feel a little 'provisional' (they should be!) – you'll refine them as you develop your programme.

Q1 – What will you call those on your mentoring programme who will be mentored?

1 Mentorees

2 Mentees

3 Protégés

4. Other:

Q2 – Do you foresee the protégé role as being ACTIVE – (for example, pressing the mentor for assistance, setting milestones, agreeing schedules), or PASSIVE (following the lead of the mentor, watching and learning)?

Q3 – Score the role of protégé in your organisation as active or passive on a line, where 0 = wholly passive, 10 = wholly active.

Q4 – List three reasons you chose to describe the protégé role as you did in Questions 2 and 3:

Q5 - From the list below, choose 5 words that most describe what your organisation wants in a protégé:

reflective clever teachable involved passionate learner authoritative patient dispassionate independent critical judgmental younger inexperienced unqualified junior committed enthusiastic new upright growing competitive challenging communicative aspirational beginning loyal knowledgeable listening action-oriented effective questioning curious brave promising

Q6 – From the list in Q5, strike out 5 words that are NOT appropriate in describing what your organisation wants from a protégé.

Q7 – Review the words not chosen or struck out – mark them as 'O' – optional, or 'I' – irrelevant.

Q8 – Using the results of your work in Questions 1 – 7, write a tentative description of a protégé for your organisation, including the 'Active' or 'Passive' role (depending on your answer to Q2), and including your 5 positive, and 5 negative descriptors. Here are 2 examples:

Example 1:

An effective protégé is expected to take the lead in the mentoring relationship, and to ensure the mentor positively affects his or her development. ('Active')

Effective protégés are teachable, involved and passionate about their development. They show independence of spirit and curiosity toward all aspects of the business. (Five

Inexperience, youthfulness, lack of qualifications or managerial status, or length of time with the organisation, do not automatically qualify anyone for participation as a
protégé. (Five negatives )

Example 2:

An effective protégé is expected to support and respond to all steps taken by the mentor to positively affect his or her development. ('Passive')

Preference will be given to the younger, less experienced, junior employees, particularly those who are knowledgeable but without formal qualification. (Five positives)

Please note that this programme is open to all – it is not reserved solely for the clever, brave, action-oriented, competitive and independent spirits amongst you! (Five negatives)

Following the examples above, write down your tentative definition of a protégé. Tip: can't find the words you want in the list? Want to add your own descriptors? – Go right ahead!

The author of this article is J. Leslie McKeown, President & CEO of Yellowbrick, who provide employee development solutions for organisations of all sizes, particularly in the areas of retention, induction and mentoring and coaching. In addition to being the author of 'The Complete Guide to Induction and Re-Induction', 'The Complete Guide to Mentoring and Coaching', and the ‘Deliver The Promise Retention MasterClass, Les travels widely, speaking and consulting on issues of employee development and corporate strategy.

Previous articles by J. Leslie McKeown:

Mentoring: Steering or drowning?

Mentoring - Your managers don't buy it?


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