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Accessing informal mentoring


Published: 20 February 2023

Version: January 2023

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Building a portfolio of mentors

Over time, we might engage in a variety of mentoring relationships – informal and/or formal – there might be periods of time when we have multiple mentors. Once people have experienced a positive and impactful mentoring relationship, they often seek to build a portfolio of informal and formal mentoring relationships, which may support different aspects of their personal and professional development.

De Janasz and Sullivan’s (2004) research on multiple mentoring relationships identifies three forms of knowing or career competencies that might be supported by a range of mentors as people transition through different stages in their careers:

  • Knowing why – mentors support the mentee with their changing beliefs and identities, also values, motivation, choices and career orientation.
  • Knowing how – mentors support the mentee with their developing knowledge and skills to be able to perform effectively in the role.
  • Knowing whom – mentors support mentees to develop their network and relationships to build reputation, visibility and provide new sources of learning, often outside of the organisational network.

The portfolio of mentors may address different aspects of ‘knowing’. The mentoring relationships may overlap in time and scope and may vary from short-term, relatively narrow focus to longer-term, broad focus. The mentoring relationships may be informal and develop organically over time.

You may wish to explore who you know in your existing networks, who might be able to support you in each of these areas. Who else might people in your network be able to recommend? What other resources, such as social networks, could you call upon to locate and approach potential mentors?

What is the difference between formal and informal mentoring?

Formal mentoring usually takes place within the framework of an organisational context, often designed with a specific purpose with specific groups of individuals. Matching is usually supported by the organisational lead/coordinator. The duration is often set by the organisation e.g., 6 or 12 months with the time commitment set e.g., 1 hour per month. In formal programmes both mentors and mentees are trained for the role. Evaluation questions, methodology and timings are set within the organisational context and programme requirements.

Informal mentoring is often an outcome of formal mentoring or emerges as people feel more comfortable with their mentoring experience and approaches to mentoring. The mentoring is usually set within the mentee’s individual context. The mentee and mentor self-match. Relationships can last for many months and years and time commitment varies over time as the relationship develops and matures. Mentees and mentors have the flexibility to evaluate how and when they choose to.

What are the benefits of informal mentoring?

Informal mentoring has little or no intervention by an organisation. The majority of impact evaluation studies explore the outcomes and benefits of formal mentoring programmes; however, some studies do explore the benefits of informal mentoring and/or the comparison of formal and informal mentoring relationships. Two studies are provided in the resources section. Research into informal mentoring shows many benefits for both individuals and organisations: 

  • Mentees in informal relationships often report greater overall satisfaction with their mentor, compared to formal programmes.
  • Mentees experience greater career satisfaction, including career development, promotion and remuneration. Mentors develop their understanding of organisational contexts.
  • Mentees develop their confidence and self-esteem and mentors experience satisfaction and self-fulfilment.
  • Mentees often engage with multiple informal mentors as their confidence grows. Multiple mentors support different aspects of the mentee's ability to navigate their internal and external context.
  • Helps the management of change and strengthens the organisational culture.
  • Spots and develops talent, including leadership succession.
  • Helps recruitment and retention.
  • Mentoring helps trapped managers to find solutions to their situation.

Identifying a mentor

Before you identify and approach a mentor, it is important to give some thought to the following:

  • Why do you want to engage with mentoring; do you have a particular purpose in mind?
  • What is the context for your mentoring: professional and career development; sector knowledge; navigating the political environment; skills development; confidence and self-esteem; managing change.
  • What are you looking for in a mentor?
  • What makes you an effective - ‘good’ - mentee?

Once you have given some thought to the above, you can then begin to identify a mentor; someone that has potential to support your needs. To identify a mentor, you might consider the following:

  • Immediate professional circle. These individuals can be former bosses, former professors or teachers, or co-workers in another department.
  • Professional bodies. Professional bodies often offer informal mentoring whereby they have ‘Mentoring Registers’ for potential mentors that are happy to offer support. You may wish to consider viewing the mentoring register.
  • Friends of friends. When considering people to turn to for guidance, start by considering your immediate network and the connections they can offer.
  • Academic institutions who offer accredited programmes. When mentors are training for their professional accreditation, they must accumulate mentoring and/or coaching practice hours and therefore look for new mentees and/or coaches. You might wish to consider viewing their websites.
  • LinkedIn. There are a whole range of organisations that advertise via LinkedIn their mentoring registers. It might be worth considering exploring the websites.

Approaching a mentor

Once you have considered your needs and identified a potential mentor, you will then want to think about how you approach the individual. You might consider the following:

  • Emailing directly
  • Message through LinkedIn or other online methods.

You may not want to ask the individual to be your mentor immediately, but rather, through an initial conversation, explore their role, experience of mentoring as a mentee or mentor and their potential interest in you.

When sending an email, it will be important to be clear in the subject line your immediate request and the body of the email that follows:


15 minutes of your time – your expertise in healthcare

Body of the email

Dear Julie,

In 10 years I aspire to be where you are in your career today: working with leadership teams in the healthcare sector. Based on your LinkedIn recommendations and feedback, you are having a significant impact on individuals and teams.

I would appreciate your help to understand how you developed into your current role, as I am particularly interested in a career path in leadership within healthcare.
I know you are incredibly busy, so I would like to limit my request to 15 minutes of your time at your convenience. I promise to keep our conversation brief, as I have already researched your profile and your work.

I can be flexible around the timing for a telephone or online call to fit around your schedule.

Thanks in advance,


What makes an effective mentoring relationship?

Informal mentoring occurs in a relationship between two people where one or both participants gain insight, knowledge, wisdom, friendship, and support from the other. Either person may initiate the mentoring relationship, the mentor to help the mentee, the mentee to learn and gain insight with a mentor. Often informal mentoring relationships transition into professional friendships. Research shows that several key indicators are associated with mentor and mentee perceptions of what makes an effective mentoring relationship – informal or formal. In this guide, we focus on two: rapport and clarity of purpose.


During the initial phase of the mentoring relationship, the degree of rapport will determine if the mentor and mentee wish to work together. Rapport is often referred to as ‘chemistry’, the extent of similarity and difference between the mentor and mentee and their ability to establish an open and trusting relationship. Rapport occurs when:

Mentees and mentors share common values, have a shared purpose, genuinely attentive and interested; there are no hidden agendas.

  • Both can be confident that whatever is said will remain confidential between them; they are able to say what they think without worrying about being criticised or judged.
  • They have mutual respect and positive regard and trust each other to do what they say they will; they trust each other’s goodwill.
  • The relationship is liberating/empowering (as opposed to confining/ disempowering).

Clarity of purpose

Clarity of purpose determines direction, focus and aids in the navigation of the relationship. High clarity of purpose occurs when:

  • There is an agenda for each meeting to focus the conversation on the long-term direction.
  • The relationship and mentoring outcomes are emergent and organic; aligned to the overall long-term direction.

Questions for reflection

  • Who do you know in your existing network that may be able to support you with your different needs?

  • How might you identify potential future mentors outside of your existing networks?

  • Reflecting on your previous experience of mentoring, to what extent did the degree of formality influence the benefits?

  • If you were to engage in informal mentoring in the future, how might you approach the relationship?

  • What existing immediate and wider networks can you draw on to identify potential mentors?

  • What new networks can you join to identify potential mentors?

  • How comfortable do you feel approaching someone you do not know to arrange an initial conversation?

  • How might you transition from an initial conversation to a follow-up conversation to request mentoring?