Over the past decade ambitious managers and professionals have increasingly been encouraged to find and make use of the services of a mentor. In many cases these relationships are developed on an informal basis, but in others they are part of organised programs such as the scheme at the consultancy firm McKinsey & Co, which allocates a mentoring partner to every new consultant. However they are structured, their aim tends to be the same - to provide an environment where a highly experienced individual can provide a sounding board for the aspirations of someone at an earlier stage of their career. Because participants in an Executive MBA program will almost certainly have a fair number of years in the workplace under their belt before commencing their studies, they may already have a mentor or be in the process of seeking one. So what part does, or should, a mentor play in the EMBA process?

Schools take the lead

At the Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, EMBA program director, Pablo Collazzo, takes the view that the school itself becomes a mentor to participants right from their first point of engagement. Although we are a relatively large school we've tried to create a very personalised, one-to-one application process which allows potential participants to test whether the experience and the environment are going to be exactly right for them. If an individual already has an external mentor we certainly don't discourage their involvement, but we regard it as our responsibility to provide an honest 'sounding board'. We want to make sure the 'fit' is right so we try to ensure that we are as objective and unbiased as possible. According to Collazzo this positioning of the school as a mentor is equally important once the EMBA begins. Every participant works with a single main point of contact throughout the program, but in effect they are drawing on the resources and experience of all the major companies, such as KLM, which founded Nyenrode and which have remained heavily involved with it ever since.

Expert guidance

At another top European institution, HEC near Paris, associate director for the EMBA, Gerard de Maupeou, takes a similar view of the mentoring role of the school. EMBA participants tend to be much more experienced than their counterparts on a conventional MBA program. People at this sort of level need to be guided rather than taught. We therefore provide them with tutors - mentors under another name - who are even more experienced than they are - members of our adjunct faculty or alumni who have been through the process already. The relationship is definitely not that of teacher and student - it's more like that of colleagues. The more experienced partner is there to provide guidance, to help participants with points of difficulty, to challenge their findings and assumptions, in effect helping them to find the answers for  themselves. You could say that it's one set of experts working with another. Professor de Maupeou also points out that, to get the best out of the relationship, the participant needs to proactively manage their mentor. The mentor won't chase you to make sure you've done what you're supposed to in the way your schoolteacher might have! Most of them have very responsible jobs of their own so it's essential to make best use of their time in the same way you would if they were a classic external mentor.

HEC alumnus, Sebastien Martin, underwent the mentoring process as an EMBA participant and now acts as an external partner himself. I took the EMBA rather than a traditional full-time MBA, even though at 34 I was relatively young at the time, because I wanted something very practical which would help me make a move into senior general management. And it seems to have worked. Before the program I was CFO at a division of Reuters whereas now I'm MD of In-Fusio, a mobile games company. He sees his role as supplying advice and challenge and believes that getting the right mix of personalities in the relationship is essential. Whichever side of the partnership you are on you have to feel comfortable with it. And that doesn't mean you have to be great friends - it's more about trust and respect. If those factors aren't there then you need to find someone else to work with.

International mentors

Across the Channel, at the UK's Warwick Business School, a loose mentoring arrangement that has been running for several years, is now being piloted as a formal scheme to bring together students and alumni. Launched in January this year the scheme has quickly been over-subscribed and the school is now actively recruiting more volunteer mentors from the ranks of its past graduates. Because of the diverse range of people we attract, the scheme has to be able to work on a truly international basis, says Tracy Lynch from the schools alumni relations department. Most of our current mentors are based in the UK, but the mentees are based all round the world from Canada to India, France to Malaysia. To make it work we've tapped into one of the school's teaching aids, wbsLive, a highly interactive video conferencing facility. This helps to sustain the all-important personal aspect of the mentor/mentee relationship.

So what do those involved in the Warwick scheme believe makes mentoring work? Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but it's essential that you have the right sort of individual acting as a mentor, says Peter Summerfield, the Warwick alumnus who was one of the driving forces behind the pilot. They need to have a strong desire to help others, they need to want to keep learning and to pass on that learning and they need to have the ability to listen and reflect. Effective mentoring isn't about telling someone what to do, sometimes you do much more good by being still and quiet. For mentee, John Hannigan, it's also vital that those on the receiving end of help and advice approach it in the right way. You have to really want to make the most of your mentor's experience, he says, and you have to be prepared to commit to a relationship based on mutual trust, respect and integrity. Always remember that this should be a partnership of equals. When mentoring works well it should be fun and rewarding for both parties.