Project Management Institute

Does a mentor make you a contender?



Losing project management veterans in an organization affects the art and science of the discipline. Culture-centric information, best practices, and proven processes can be lost in the shuffle from those retiring and new hires. Mentoring can be the best way to transfer knowledge from one group to another. Creating knowledge transfer practices and standards that align with the organization's mission, goals, and culture is important to creating a smooth transition.


I have found that foresight can be a rare commodity in most organizations. For example, I was webmaster for a college and gave the employer two months' notice that I would be leaving my position to teach full time at another university. In the afternoon of my last day, I was asked to show the new webmaster the ropes. He received a couple of hours of my sage advice and details on how I performed my job. Of course, the downside was I would not be around if he had any questions or concerns about how to update and manage the website. In other words, he was on his own in this important communications position for the college and had to come up with processes instead of building on the processes I had already put in place. This practice is commonly known as “reinventing the wheel.”

A lack of foresight on the college's part may have been caused by resistance to change or perhaps by not acknowledging that key positions within an organization may need to have backup when the primary employee is indisposed or not available. A failure to transfer knowledge can have short-term or long-term effects on the organization and can prove to be quite disruptive. However this trend can be reversed by reframing the process as positive and proactive and as an excellent business strategy that needs to be pursued.

“More recently, mentorship has become a business strategy and semipermanent structure for many types of entities, including industrial corporations, professional service firms and academic institutions” (Reinstein, Sinason, and Fogarty, 2012, p. 40).

To set the stage, here are a few quotes and definitions regarding the practice of mentoring:

“A man may plant a tree for a number of reasons. Perhaps he likes trees. Perhaps he wants shelter. Or perhaps he knows that someday he may need the firewood” (Harris, J., Runemarks, 2009).

“Mentor: to give advice and instruction to (someone) regarding the course or process to be followed” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

“In mentorship a senior, more experienced individual (the mentor) provides advice, counsel, or guidance to a junior, less seasoned person (the protégé). This relationship helps to develop protégé's' skills and career plans, while producing essential benefits to the employing organization by yielding a sustainable supply of human capital” (Reinstein, A., Sinason, D.., and Fogarty, T., 2012, p. 40).

“Mentoring is a structured and trusting relationship that brings people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support, and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of the mentee. Mentoring pairs a less experienced person with one who has experience and is willing to teach, coach, counsel, sponsor, and energize” (Laughlin, K., and Yopp, M., 2006, p. 24).

“The mentor's role is multifaceted: it combines training, in-project participation, and offline hand-holding” (Aswamy, M., 2001, p 40).

Not Just “One-On-One”

This does not necessarily mean that all mentoring needs to be done on a one-on-one basis. There is much to learn for someone entering the organization or changing positions within an organization, and many viewpoints may assist the neophyte project manager in developing a more rounded understanding of leading a project team in the organization. ‘matrix mentoring’

“A ‘matrix mentoring’ model is defined by the authors as a formal mentoring program, whereby selected mentees spend time with a variety of mentors, each responsible for imparting specific managerial competencies” (Finney, S., MacDougall, J., and O'Neill, M., 2012, p. 171).

So clearly there is not just one “flavor” of mentoring when it comes to knowledge transfer. For example beside training new hires or those who have been promoted to project manager, mentoring may be used in the following ways:

  • With “seasoned” professionals as well as new practitioners;
  • As a leadership technique for project managers;
  • On volatile or fast-paced projects;
  • As a way of building a project management office (PMO);
  • As a standardized process;
  • As an instrument of retention to minimize talent turnover;
  • To introduce the new project;
  • With an individual or a team;
  • To be integrated into a project manager career path;
  • To work on “soft skills” (Walker, 2011, p 1).

In addition, since project management is a team-based, collaborative discipline, another factor to consider is that this type of environment naturally lends itself to becoming a mentoring environment. Such a collaborative group effort can sustain a mentoring environment within the organization. This is another alternative to the simple one-on-one scenario thought to be the most common experience for rendering a mentoring process. Because of the collegial atmosphere, the project environment has been found to be quite effective for implementing mentoring in a group setting.

“In such a collaborative environment, mentoring means more than one-on- one guidance between veteran and beginner; instead, mentoring is a group effort, involving practitioners with a variety of experience and providing an influential model for how colleagues work together as a matter of course” (McCann, 2010, p. 112).

A Case of Socialization

Within the field of social sciences, there are many theories of how people relate to one another and how human beings become individuals. The act of learning the ways of life or culture has been defined by the word socialization. But the process is much broader in that it is speaking about a candidate who is completely new to his or her environment— in other words, a newborn. One can view this person as a “blank slate” who will learn the ways of the world from a doting family and friends; however, it would be incorrect to believe that the newborn knows absolutely nothing. They know they must breathe, eat, and make noises to attract attention. Furthermore, a pediatric researcher found that breathing patterns in a one-day-old child changed while exposed to different music (Christakis, 2011, p. 11).

Burgess and Turner (2000) show that mentoring can be part of creating and sustaining commitment by project team members. “New recruits are often assigned an experienced ‘mentor’ who works with them to ensure their socialization [sic]. Thus new employees are continuously fed the company values and have a role model to learn from.” (p. 229)

The same can be said of a mentee in that it would be an error to assume that this individual is a “blank slate” when it comes to learning the ways of an organization's mission. The mentee will minimally bring life and past working experiences to the position in the organization.

Another thing to consider is that mentoring is not a typical learning experience. In other words, the mentee is not a student, nor is the mentor a teacher in the strict sense of these words. A better choice of words and thus insights into this relationship would be learner or perhaps protégé and facilitator. These are terms that have a better fit in a workplace environment instead of a traditional school or training center. The point is that the learning experience is expanded because the learner is bringing knowledge from their own schooling and life experiences, and the facilitator has intimate knowledge of the organization.

It's Not All About the Mentee!

Another thing to consider is that mentoring is never all about the mentee. At first, he or she may be the main focus of the process; however there are other elements at play here. A “seasoned veteran” of the project management discipline will learn a lot from being a mentor. I base this statement on having taught various academic disiplines over a 30-year period, where I have found out new things from my students on the very discipline I was “professing.” Also when observing mentors in the field, they report back that they are learning more than they thought they would in this role. They express as well that this is practical “deep learning” that is very important to understand issues, problems, goals, and solutions within an organization.

How Deep Learning Occurs for Both Participants in a Mentoring Environment

Exhibit 1: How Deep Learning Occurs for Both Participants in a Mentoring Environment

However the learner/facilitator scenario can be quite complex, and there needs to be a process to end the relationship if it is not working out. One of the key pieces of the success of the relationship is being able to get along, understand where each person is coming from, and clearly appreciate the reasons for mentoring in the first place.

“Yet, unless the fit between mentors and mentees is carefully considered, problems can arise. Additionally, these relationships place great demands and expectations on individual mentors and often fail to appreciate the power of distributed expertise and developmental support within organizations or individuals' many social networks” (Dominiguez and Haber, 2013, p. 183).

The Lifecycle of the Relationship

It has been shown that new groups go through a process of form, storm, norm, and perform. The same can be said of a mentee/mentor relationship in that there is a typical pattern that occurs and has been documented through research. Much of the literature is based on a study by Kram where the relationships develops over many years and goes through the phases of initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition (1983, p. 614).

Phases of Mentoring Relationship*

Exhibit 2: Phases of Mentoring Relationship*

*Graphic Representation by Walker based on Phases of a Mentoring Relationship (Kram, 1983, p. 622).

Initiation can be thought of as the first contact for the two individuals; however, it gains positive traction because of the ability of the mentor to teach, and the willingness of the mentee to learn, the ways of the organization. Cultivation is where the aforementioned “deep learning” occurs, when the considerable talents of the senior member are shared with the newcomer and the newcomer may build upon the knowledge. At separation, it can be a change in the organization or the moving on of the mentor that brings the newcomer into the group of seasoned managers and the redefinition phase can bring about a peer relationship between the two individuals.

Gaining Support

Just like a project, building a mentor/mentee program needs to be supported by management. Although there are multiple cases where the process has started informally, the idea is to formalize the process so that it becomes a common practice within the organization. For the organization, the main point to remember is that a mentoring program may help with consistency of processes from one project to the next. It will also improve the bottom line by training and retaining employees.

“A mentoring program makes sense and saves money. It can lead to higher retention of employees, and it can also attract new talent by demonstrating an organizational commitment to professional development. The cost of replacing a current worker is estimated to be as much as two to three time the cost of retaining someone” (Laughlin and Yopp, 2006, p. 26).

In order to sell the idea to management, the best way to frame it is as a business strategy. For example, if there are instances within the organization where a seasoned veteran retired or separated from the business and there were negative impacts on production, finance, project completion rates, or any other issues that have impacted the bottom line, these cases can be brought to the attention of management. In other words, the lack of knowledge transfer from an exiting group to an ongoing one will set back the mission and goals of the organization.

Another approach would be to suggest a pilot mentoring program. The advantages to this approach is that:

  • It can be kept small in order to be able to measure results.
  • It will not impact on the organization in a negative way because it is small.
  • It can be done in a shorter amount of time.
  • It will not be costly.
  • It is easier to control.
  • It can create an early win.
  • It can be used to create a more comprehensive program.

Pilot programs have an added advantage of being flexible. It will be easier to correct issues and keep the program on track. The important piece of this is the design in regard to measuring pre- and post-pilot findings. This should include a survey on backgrounds of the particpants for matching purposes and a post-interview to determine the impact of the pilot program.

One author suggests a mentoring program design should include:

  • “Joint” training;
  • Trust-building exercises among mentors and learners;
  • Leadership and management education of learners by mentors in areas such as management style, organizational structure, and decision making approaches;
  • Audiovisual resources such as written guides, video and audiotapes, and role-playing training sessions;
  • Career development needs identification and task development exercises; and
  • Regularly scheduled mentor/learner meetings” (Gingerich, 2003, p. 511).

The main point to stress is that this will be a temporary endeavor; it will not take as long as a full-blown program, and it can be scaled up if the results are satisfactory to the sponsoring managers. Also, it can in time become a part of the duties and responsibilities of an employee with standards and guidelines to assist and augment the process.

Establishing a Mentoring Framework

In order to establish a mentoring framework it is important to define the mission and goals of the program and make sure they align with internal organizational guidelines. Dominguez and Hager (2013) suggest that there are many approaches to consider based on different mentoring theories which are developmental, learning, and social. In essence the program may be based on the interactions of the mentor/mentee relationship, the way people learn, or the group(s) that emerge and perform from the program.

In the case of project management, since it already is a team or group-based endeavor, a social theory perspective is most appropriate and can include such entities as communities of practice and social networks (p. 181).

As with all new programs there will be a need for reflection on what has transpired in order to improve the program. This should be integrated into the closing phase “lessons learned” in the project process lifecycle.


If the organization has a mature project management regimen, then using past project documentation can suggest what strengths and weaknesses are inherent in their practices. It can guide the mentoring program on what has been established as best practices and what processes still need to be improved upon. This can help the mentor brief the mentee on what has transpired in the past, what needs attention for improvement, and what practices have been successful and should be continued.

Another thing to consider is to have the “seasoned veteran” document what he or she has learned through years of employment service in the organization. This can be quite overwhelming for veterans to consider, and they may have problems with reporting what has transpired in the past. However, having a professional interviewer interact with the the employee and document what has transpired may be an elegant solution in which the interviewee is asked about their experiences and how their decisions were made.. The other option is to make sure project managers, no matter how long they have served in the organization, begin journals that focus on problems encountered and solutions that were found. This way the information is fresh and has less chance of being erroneous.

On the other end of the spectrum, the new hire needs to be encouraged to share knowledge as a matter of course. The emphasis should be on bringing new ideas that may help streamline processes or solve problems in new ways. As mentioned before, the new hire should not be looked upon as a “blank slate” and should be encouraged to share their past experiences that relate to problems encountered.

Eskerod and Blichfeldt (2005) believe that using a mentor to onboard a new project team member can be especially effective during the project lifecycle. “Such mentoring could possibly include an invitation from an established project member to give the entrée a tour around the project site; a tour introducing the entrée to key project members and/or team members working with closely related topics” (p. 501).

The purpose of the mentoring process should not always be formalized into a program. What I am suggesting is that mentoring needs to be embedded into the way of doing business within the organization and that sharing knowledge on a day-to-day basis is important for everyone on the project team as well as the organization as a whole. This can be a simple policy of having a new hire “shadow” a veteran project manager and observe how they conduct themselves during the project lifecycle.

Pollack (2012) showed that one organization's knowledge transfer program used a variety of projects to move information to a new generation. They did the following:

  • Established of a mentoring program;
  • Developed of a specialist community of practice
  • Redefined generalist roles to allow for specialization;
  • Initiated a pre-retirement preparation project, addressing issues of retention and reduced load;
  • Established regular knowledge sharing seminars, to allow key internal knowledge holders to present to sections of the organization they would not normally interact with;
  • Developed an online knowledge transfer community to facilitate discussion forums, to enhance storytelling, and to support communities of practice;
  • Introduced an online, risk-analysis tool, enhancing capability development;
  • Enhanced recruitment practices, including the introduction of a graduate program and changes to the recruiting philosophy to allow for faster specialist product skills development (Pollack, 2012, p. 879).


It is clear that there is not one approach to transferring knowledge in an organization. A mentoring program, whether it is a formal entity or an informal process, can bridge the gap between a neophyte employee and a seasoned veteran and lend consistency to a project management program. Bear in mind that the process needs to be supported by management, that the mentor as well as the mentee will gain insights and learn from the process, that there are different approaches to create a mentoring framework, that the mentoring relationship(s) will endure, and that the organization, as well as the participants, will reap advantages. Being a mentor will make you a contender!


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Pollack, J. (2012). Transferring knowledge about knowledge management: Implementation of a complex oganisational change programme. International Journal of Project Management, 30 (8), 877–886.

Reinstein, A., Sinason, D., and Fogarty, T. (2012). Examining mentoring in public accounting organizations. Review of Business, 33(1), 40–49. Retrieved from

Walker, L. (2011). PM professionalism: It's all about mentoring! Project Management Institute North American Congress 201. Retrieved from's_All_About_Mentoring!

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Dr. Loran W. Walker DMIT, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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