The Magic of Matching Mentors and Proteges

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The Magic of Matching Mentors and Proteges

 A few musings from:

Ellen A. Ensher, Ph.D.

February 6, 2012


In the movie, Jerry Maguire, the character, Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), says to Jerry (Tom Cruise), “You Complete Me….”  In this moment, they recognize that their relationship whole is greater than the sum of their individual parts and presumably they live happily ever after. This works really well in a Hollywood movie and in fact many people who enter into interpersonal relationship hope to find this type of soul mate match. But how does this work for mentoring relationships?   I think it is a rare mentor-protégé match that is a true work soul mate connection. However, I also think there is much that can be done to match mentors and protégés so that their relationships are mutually beneficial and enjoyable.

There are a lot of ways to match mentors and protégés and some are better than others. There has been some empirical research done on what makes up the mysterious alchemy between the mentor and the protégé, and no surprise, findings are mixed.  Overall, though, there are some common themes. I like to think of mentoring as consisting of three entities.

First, there is the organization within which the mentoring exists. There are variables within the organization to consider that are infrastructure and big picture related like:  size of the program, support of management and resources available, time and availability of program administrators, culture of the organization (i.e., is this an organic, self-help kind of culture or more bureaucratic?), and comfort level with technology.

Second, there are also individual level characteristics between the mentor and protégé to consider as well. Some of these characteristics are: values, personality, goals, demographics, time constraints, and geography.  It helps to consider these when making a match but there is a not a one size fits all philosophy for any one of these—they are just variables to consider.

The third entity is the mentoring partnership itself. For this to work really well, the partnership needs to have enough similarity to find some common ground, but enough differences so they have something valuable to learn from each other.  And, it helps if they like each other as people, a lot (and yes, there is a body of research that supports this very intuitive finding!).  Also, at least in the U.S., most people want to have some control over the relationship so feeling like you had some choice in your partner seems to help people feel more invested in the partnership overall.

In sum, there may not be a magic formula but I can make some important recommendations:  1) When matching people in mentoring programs in the United States and many Western countries, I highly recommend that you give mentors and protégés as much choice  over who they are matched with and control over how and when they will meet and interact as possible, 2) Mentors and protégés need to have something in common with each other that is valuable and enjoyable to them (goals, values, interests, people), 3) Mentors and protégés need to have something different from one another that is valuable to each other that will be complementary (skills, network, a perspective) so that there can be a give and take in the relationship.

Once mentors and protégés are matched and they get rolling on their relationship, there is a lot that can be done to stack the odds in their favor like proper training and alignment of expectations up front, coaching throughout, and recognition and rewards for participation.

For more information on how to be a mentor or specific citations related to these thoughts, please contact Ellen Ensher at


P.S. If you are looking for a quick guide with some steps to finding a mentor on your own, and not part of a formal program, check out a few thoughts of mine in USA Today available here!

The Magic of Matching Mentors and Proteges