One of the things I do in this new country, is coach and mentor people to help transfer knowledge and grow skills. It is something I enjoy doing and would do even if it wasn’t expected of me. In fact I had started before I even knew it was expected.

And given that there were so many people who wanted my support I resurrected a concept that I had used some years ago with Shell: mentoring circles.

Instead of individual sessions between coach and coachee, or mentor and mentee, the mentor runs sessions with groups of people at the same time.

Within Shell they were used for a while as a diversity initiative. Senior leaders would mentor a group of ‘young professional women’ over a series of five or six two-hour sessions spread perhaps once per month. As many as ten or twelve people took part in each group. There was also a topic for each series of circles. I remember running groups on ‘Navigating your career’, ‘Making cross-functional moves’ and ‘Bridging the gap between technical expertise and general business competences’, the latter important for people in technology wanting to develop their career.

For the national rail company here, I have two smaller groups of three or four people, one who work together in the HR department and the other in the Transformation team. We’ve worked with a number of topics including work-life balance, ways of organizing work, transforming the minds of staff and the concept of coaching and mentoring itself.

What are the differences in mentoring a circle rather than an individual and are there advantages or disadvantages?

In many respects they are the same.

You work with what the individuals want to do. You ask questions. They fill in their own development. And as the balance between coaching and mentoring can be a fine line in this part of the world, you also offer examples of things you have done in the past, which may hopefully be helpful.

Advantages of mentoring circles include:

  • Not just one mentor but having the whole group: everyone can advise and benefit from each other
  • Good use of the mentor’s time: time efficient for very senior leaders
  • Useful in situations with many potential mentees and few mentors
  • Provides opportunities for those with similar development wishes to network with others
  • Opportunity to learn about other topics which may not have been covered in a one-to-one session

There are challenges however because it is a group and not an individual:

  • You have got to be aware of setting groundrules. Probably the most important is confidentiality. In a one-on-one session it’s easier. Here a whole group may be hearing things that should stay in the room. In addition to confidentiality, mutual respect, awareness of each other’s situation, listening, commitment and having fun are often included.
  • Expectations of the mentor role (and that of the mentees) should also be discussed. What it is and what it isn’t. Especially as circles cannot provide the one-to-one personal attention of conventional coaching and mentoring.
  • There is obviously less time available for the mentee to speak than in one-to-one sessions (although circles often last longer than individual meetings). So sharing of the available time for speaking and listening is important. Although in my experience women are better at doing this than men.
  • In many ways the circles are more like mini-workshops. So the mentor needs a feel for group dynamics. But the circles have the potential for active learning, which a normal one-to-one statics session would not have.
  • Design of the circles is important. To ensure that what is being discussed is as relevant to as many as possible. So in the first session the wishes and expectations of all participants should be known and planned for in the following meetings, agreeing objectives through group consensus.
  • A designed workshop approach also allows for invited guests or speakers to add to the mentor’s experience on certain topics. I did this a lot at Shell using my contacts to increase the mentee’s learning.
  • Finally co-ordination of circles can be difficult with so many participants. At Shell one of the mentees took the role of circle administration co-ordinator to help out.

In my experience, mentoring circles can be as effective as one-on-one coaching or mentoring sessions, and that their efficiency, diversity and active learning more than outweighs any disadvantages over more conventional approaches. And they can also be more fun, for everyone concerned!


  1. Karim Akhlal

    I enjoyed having you as a coach during the startup of my previous company Gary. Still cherish good memories. All the best over there!

  2. M Maleki

    It’s funny that the girls on the picture are my old classmates from the University of Aberdeen.


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