Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Mentoring: Is It for Extension?

It's more than the buddy system.

Keith L. Smith
Leader, Personnel Development
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
and Associate Professor, Agricultural Education
The Ohio State University - Columbus

William E. Beckley
Program Assistant
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
The Ohio State University - Columbus

Sir Frances Bacon knew that a link between age and youth was important when he wrote:

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both old and young, for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors; . . . . 1

As early as the Renaissance, people such as Bacon saw the virtue of a mentoring situation. So why wouldn't this same concept or link between age and youth work in Ohio? Isn't there an advantage of having experienced agents being mentors to inexperienced agents? As we learned in Ohio, this concept pays off.

Traditional Orientation

Traditionally, new agent orientation in Ohio consisted of two, three-day meetings of all the agents hired the previous year. Agents with less than six months experience received Phase I orientation, which included sessions on: Extension philosophy, subject-matter training, committee work, benefits, priority setting, and promotion and tenure information. Agents with 6 to 12 months experience received Phase II orientation, which concentrated on: program planning, implementation, evaluation, and methods of teaching.

Although this formal orientation was well-received and provided important information, new agents continued to have high turnover. Data from Extension exit interviews indicated something was lacking in the new agent's introduction to the organization. The County Agents Association's Committee on Professional Improvement suggested a buddy system to help introduce new people to Extension. Information concerning mentoring, gleaned from Knowles,2 supported this buddy concept. All these suggestions and bits of information helped stimulate the creation of a program designed to help new employees become more thoroughly introduced to Extension.

Mentoring System

In January, 1983, newly hired agents in Ohio were recruited into a mentoring system, as an informal supplement to the formal orientation activities provided during the agent's first year on the job.

The concept of mentoring is difficult to define. Lea and Leibowitz have suggested that mentoring can best be understood by focusing on 10 behaviors that mentors perform-teaching, guiding, advising, counseling, sponsoring, role modeling, validating, motivating, protecting, and communicating. These behaviors taken together constitute what's generally thought of as mentoring.3

An important point is that mentoring can't be made to happen.4 The Ohio system was initiated with the assumption that introducing newly hired agents to those with more experience would, in some cases, lead to mentor relationships. However, failed relationships were expected to occur.


A committee of agents and specialists was assigned to establish guidelines for the Ohio mentoring system. Their work resulted in the following:

  • Definition: An informal system designed to help the new county agent become better acquainted with technical subject-matter, situations, and environments related to his/her new position in The Ohio Cooperative Extension Service.

  • Major objectives: (1) To provide an open atmosphere for dialogue; (2) to enhance and provide motivation for job performance, creativity, and the acceptance of responsibilities with confidence; (3) to give new agents the incentive to improve themselves professionally through staff development activities; (4) to enhance the agents' concept of the total program of Ohio Extension by viewing differing situations and environments; and (5) to expand the new agents' subject-matter competencies.

  • Mentors: Respected Extension agents selected by their peers to help orient newly hired agents within the guidelines of the program's objectives.

All Extension agents were surveyed to establish a pool of mentors for the program. The survey asked agents to name three of their peers who would be good mentors, based on personality, characteristics, and subject-matter skills. A point system was developed whereby each named agent was given 1, 1.5, or 2 points for each vote received. Different point values were assigned based on whether the nominating agent was in the same Extension geographical area or Extension program area as the named agent. The votes received from agents outside of the named agent's geographical and program area received greater point values.

Totals for the mentor agents were compiled and agents who received high scores were included as a part of the mentor pool. All of these agents thus identified in the mentor pool subsequently consented to be mentors. Selection of mentors to match with new agents was done by a team composed of the Staff Development Office, Personnel Office, associate director, and immediate supervisor. The major criteria used to match new agents to mentors were geographical location, program area, and particular special needs of the new agents.

First Year Follow-up

In April, 1984, a follow-up study was done to assess the new mentoring system. Instruments were developed based on the objectives of the program, and on concepts used by Inana in a study of mentor relationships of home economists.5 Participating new agents and their mentors were sent these instruments, with 100% responding (N =16). One mentor pair reported having had no interaction, because of subject-matter incompatability. As a result, the findings report only the responses of the seven mentor pairs who indicated having experienced interaction.

Table 1 contains the number of times that mentors and new agents reported having had interaction. New agents reported having had an average of 15.3 interactions with their mentors during their first year of employment. Telephone contacts were reported as numbering 7.3, and face-to-face contacts 6.7. Interestingly, mentors reported having had fewer total interactions (9.4), phone contacts (4.7), and face-to-face contacts (4.7) than did new agents. One explanation for this difference may be that the interactions made a greater impression on the new agents than on those with experience.

Table 1. Interactions reported by new agents and mentors.
Interaction   New agent (N = 7)
Mentor (N = 7)


By phone   7.3 4.7
Face-to-face   6.7 4.7
Miscellaneous   1.3 0.0

Total   15.3 9.4

Table 2 reports what agents felt the interactions provided. General agreement exists between the mentor pairs about most of the interaction items. Interactions provided: an open atmosphere for dialogue; motivation, creativity, and acceptance of responsibility; and practical help in relating to the agent role and carrying out responsibilities. These results were seen by administration as very positive. However, after reviewing Table 2, administration thought mentors could have provided more help in subject-matter competence.

Table 2. New agents' and mentors' perceptions of interactions.
  New agents (N = 7) Mentors (N = 7)

Sometimes Not at
Sometimes Not at

Interactions provided:  
Open atmosphere for dialogue 7 0 0 6 1 0
Motivation for job performance 3 4 0 4 1 2
Motivation for creativity on the job 5 1 1 3 2 2
Motivation for the acceptance of responsibilities 4 2 1 4 2 1
Improve subject-matter competence 2 2 3 3 3 1
Improve process skill cometence 1 5 1 3 3 1
Incentive for professional growth 2 3 2 4 2 1
Practical assistance related to carrying out position responsibilities 5 2 0 5 2 0
Help to develop a sensitivity to change 0 6 1 1 4 2
Help to understand the total Ohio Extension program 1 4 2 3 4 1

Table 3 shows the new agents' perceptions of the mentors' behaviors. "Providing support and friendship" was the behavior reported as most often given by the mentor. An area needing more effort was in introducing new agents to important people in Extension. Tables 2 and 3 show that most of the interactions and mentor behaviors were reported in the categories "very often" or "sometimes."

Table 3. New agents' and mentors' perceptions of mentors' behaviors.
  New agents (N = 7) Mentors (N = 7)

Sometimes Not at
Sometimes Not at

How often did mentor:  
Give support and/or friendship 6 1 0 5 1 1
Act as a source of career aspiration 1 5 1 1 5 1
Help to develop self-confidence 3 3 1 2 4 1
Encourage to participate in professional organizations 3 2 2 3 1 3
Give feedback about abilities 0 5 2 3 2 2
Help shape new agents commitment to the organization 0 6 1 3 2 2
Introduce new agents to important people in Extension 1 3 3 0 4 3
Give new agents guidance in learning about informal communication networks within the organization 1 5 1 5 2 0
Encourage new agents to try something new 2 3 2 4 2 1


We're pleased with the results from the first year of the program. Although only eight new agents were hired in Ohio this past year due to budget constraints, we believe the program helped them through their first year on the job. The survey results indicate to us that most of the program objectives were met, specific objectives of the program having been the interaction items in Tables 2 and 3. Covering these specific objectives would hopefully help us reach our overall objective of helping new employees become more thoroughly introduced to Extension. The mentor pair that reported no interaction helped us realize the system works best when agents from the same subject-matter area are linked together, thus ensuring more compatability.

We have several other recommendations as a result of our observation of this mentor program and follow-up study:

  1. Be supportive of other networks that may be established.
  2. Avoid the use of forms and reports.
  3. Keep the informality of the mentor system by not having mentors report to supervisors.
  4. Keep the program flexible.
  5. Maintain the one-year length of the program (consistent with the National Guidelines for Orientation).
  6. Encourage full-day visits two to three times during that year (these one-on-one visits were seen as very positive).
  7. Achieve less new agent turnover for our organization.

Ohio will continue this program as a supplement to the formal orientation activities, which will help new agents to more closely identify their role responsibilities.


  1. Sir Francis Bacon, "Of Youth and Age," English Literature and Its Background–Shorter Edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1950).
  2. Malcolm S. Knowles, "Inservice Education-A Comprehensive Plan for the Individual" (Speech presented at the North Central Staff Development Conference, Duluth, Minnesota, July 1, 1981).
  3. Daniel Leah and Zandy B. Leibowitz, "A Mentor: Would You Know One If You Saw One?" Supervisory Management, XXVIII (April, 1983), 33-35.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Marjorie Inana, "Mentor Relationships of Home Economists in Higher Education," Journal of Home Economics, LXXV (Spring, 1983), 19-21.