Is There A Need To Define Mentoring Within A Military Organization?

This post comes from Trevor Down, a member of the Royal Air Force (UK) and the first international military partner of our eMMissary program (or in the British vernacular, programme). We appreciated having his outside perspective and are glad to share it here with you!

I feel privileged to be in a position to be able to offer this article as part of the Military Mentors eMMissary programme as the first international participant. Hopefully, this article will give an insight into my personal views of defining mentoring within the Royal Air Force and the difficulty many large organizations, including the varied military contexts, across the world. It is hopefully designed to be thought provoking and act as a catalyst for debate.

Approximately, four years ago I began delivering a Level 5 accredited Coaching and Mentoring course (through the Institute of Leadership and Management) as part of the development programmes run at Royal Air Force Cosford in the United Kingdom. Much of the first day of delivery develops the theory behind both coaching and mentoring and endeavors to define what both of these areas of support mean. There are subtle practical differences between coaching and mentoring however, within a military context, these differences are more obvious, especially where there is a focus on performance, ‘goal orientated’ coaching. I began to actually question the need to define both coaching and more specifically mentoring. I felt myself struggling with the definitions laid out within the learning outcomes especially where a student has to ‘Define what coaching and mentoring is within the context of an organisation and explain the similarities and differences between coaching and mentoring’ (Institute of Leadership and Management, 2016, p.11). I subsequently felt the need to read around the subject to understand why there was a need to define the act of mentoring.

Numerous researchers have come to a consensus that mentoring is elusive to define (Ehrich and Hansford, 1999). Despite the growth in the use of mentoring, coupled with the various other ‘helping’ activities such as coaching and counselling (Garvey, 2004), and the fact that mentoring has been extensively researched, with numerous comprehensive literature reviews being undertaken, there are still a plethora of definitions (Gibson, 2005). Despite the glut of research, a working definition is elusive and problematic to convey (Abiddin and Suandi, 2009; Coll and Raghavan, 2011). Whilst being difficult to define, many researchers and academics have endeavored to clarify a definition, however, this is often done within the context and situation of their research or environment (Clutterbuck, 2008). For the Royal Air Force this could be problematic as they define mentoring without focusing on the nuances and requirements of differing Royal Air Force stations. That said, it is understandable that the Royal Air Force has defined mentoring as they are trying to ensure a corporate approach to mentoring practice. A generic working definition can be useful in the outset (Barnhoorn, 2016) however, when looking at differing requirements across the Royal Air Force, there might be confusion with the semantics of the definition; as Oscar Wild once stated ‘To define is to limit’ (Wild, 1891, in Barnhoorn, 2016).

As a consequence of reading around the subject of defining mentoring, I came across numerous definitions from both civilian and military contexts. These confirmed that each military environment, including Military Mentors and the Royal Air Force, defined mentoring to suit their specific goals; these consisted of leadership, educational/qualification or career contexts. I originally thought that all of these definitions could not be correct, however, I was looking at from my view what I understood to be mentoring. Consequently, I now believe that all of these definitions are relevant within their own specific contexts.

In my mind, a question kept reoccurring when I read the mentoring literature; is mentoring situation and personality dependent? Surely the needs of the person come before corporate needs? Therefore, why is there a need to define mentoring when each mentoring relationship is different? I also started to question the difference between coaching and mentoring, leaning towards Garvey’s (2004) view that both activities, with counselling, were just ‘helping’ activities. Moreover, much of the confusion that is now occurring in the ‘helping’ field is that many of the skills and attributes required of coaching and/or mentoring overlap (Megginson and Clutterbuck, 2005). The confusion surrounding the differentiation between the two disciplines is that whilst coaching aims to unlock someone’s potential without the need for the coach to be a subject matter expert, it’s origins can be traced back to sports coaching and a book by Tim Gallway called the Inner Game of Tennis. The coach normally instructs or teaches the student and traditionally has knowledge or skill on the said subject (Whitmore, 2009). The Royal Air Force have endeavored to differentiate between coaching and mentoring and focus on the fact the mentor has experience within a similar field within a career context. Surely, what matters within a ‘helping’ relationship is the agreed and clear outcomes of the relationship? (Megginson and Clutterbuck, 2005).

From my experiences, whilst potentially setting out to undertake a mentoring session, you undertake the session with many techniques that coaches also use and experience both mentoring and coaching elements within one session. This being dependent on what outcome the client requires from the session and therefore backing up my understanding that each mentoring relationship, and potentially each session, is situation and personality dependent.

The current definition used by the Royal Air Force is one of David Clutterbuck’s numerous definitions:

‘Mentoring involves primarily listening with empathy, sharing experience (usually mutually), professional friendship, developing insight through reflection, being a sounding board, encouraging’ (Clutterbuck)

This definition highlights key phrases such as: acting as a sounding board and being a professional friend, which are roles of the mentor, and skills such as: listening with empathy and reflecting. It could be argued that these phrases are very much aligned with numerous benefits of formal mentoring: improve business performance, motivational enhancements and skills and knowledge development (Megginson et al, 2006). As mentioned at the beginning of this article, within my work context, we currently offer two development programmes: the Personnel Development and Instructor Development programmes. Both of these programmes offer mentoring training as part of the training offered to staff. The mentoring framework, developed in conjunction with the Personnel Development Programme, utilises an informal, voluntary approach both in selecting mentors and mentees and focuses on the psychosocial development of staff in an informal environment. In contrast, individuals undertaking the Instructor Development Programme follow a formalised route which also includes the coaching and mentoring course.

The Royal Air Force’s mentoring definition, based around the benefits of formal mentoring, sits well with the formal approach within the Instructor Development Programme but fails to paint an accurate picture of mentoring regarding the Personnel Development Programme. This could lead to confusion of staff who are not from the instructor cadre and could potentially limit individuals from undertaking mentoring if they are sceptical of formal, hierarchical situations. If there is a need for this informal, psychosocial approach to mentoring within the Royal Air Force, the definition chosen is potentially not fit for purpose. Many companies and professions with coaching and mentoring programmes have endeavoured to quantify their approaches with definition, processes and practices, based on the company’s context (Clutterbuck, 2008). Moreover, academics are now stating that defining coaching and mentoring needs to consider the specific environments and defined differently in each context (Clutterbuck, 2008). With many diverse contexts across the Royal Air Force, and indeed, in any military organisation, each with their own specific requirements, is there a need to choose one specific definition?


Abiddin, N.Z. and Suandi, T. (2016) Enhancing Professional Development through Mentoring. EDUCARE, 2(1).

Barnhoorn, P. C. (2016) Professional Behavior: To Define Is to Limit. Academic Medicine. 91(9), pp.1192-1193.

Clutterbuck, D. (2008) What's happening in coaching and mentoring? And what is the difference between them? Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal. 22(4), pp.8-10.

Coll, J.H. and Raghavan, P. (2011) Mentoring: Who and how. Journal of College Teaching and Learning (TLC). 1(8).

Ehrich, L. C. and Hansford, B. (1999) Mentoring: Pros and cons for HRM. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. 37(3), pp.92-107.

Garvey, B. (2004) The mentoring/counselling/coaching debate: call a rose by any other name and perhaps it’s a bramble?. Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal. 18(2), pp.6-8.

Gibson, S. K. (2005) Whose best interests are served? The distinction between mentoring and support. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 7(4), pp.470-488.

Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM). (2016) Technical specifications for City & Guilds Level 5 Qualifications in Coaching and Mentoring (8580) [online]. [Accessed 2 September 2017]. Available at: <>.

Megginson, D., and Clutterbuck, D. (2005) Techniques for coaching and mentoring. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Megginson, D., Clutterbuck, D., Garvey, B., Stokes, P., and Garrett-Harris, R. (2006) Mentoring in Action: A Practical Guide for Managers. 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page.

Whitmore, J. (2009) Coaching for performance: growing human potential and purpose: the principles and practice of coaching and leadership. 4th ed. London: Nicholas Brealey publishing.

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