The other day I came across a talk (Part 1; Part 2) I gave on mentoring that reminded me about the three Fs of mentoring success. The Academy of Management gave me a lifetime mentoring award for working with doctoral students, and in return they asked that I give a talk about mentoring. Preparing for the talk had me reflecting on the lessons I had learned from both my mentors and mentees.
Why Is Mentoring Important?
Mentoring is important in many walks of life including school and work. Mentors might be professors, teachers, or supervisors. They might be coworkers who take you under their wing. Mentors are more experienced people who help one or more mentees in a variety of ways. They serve as coaches, counselors, friends, and role models. There are several important functions of mentors that fit into three categories, as found by Kurt Kraiger, Lisa Finkelstein and Lebena Varghese in their study of mentoring.
- Guiding Careers. Mentors help mentees set career objectives and develop the skills needed to achieve those goals.
- Providing Emotional Support. School and work can be demanding and stressful. Mentors can serve as a first line of defense in dealing with difficult challenges. Good mentors know how to listen, and know when to offer advice.
- Providing a Psychologically Safe Place. Mentoring relationships require trust, and good mentors will accept mentees for who they are and listen to their concerns without judging. This provides a psychologically safe place where mentees feel comfortable sharing their challenges.
The Three Fs of Mentoring Success
In thinking about the most significant things mentors did for me in graduate school and about what I have found is most effective in my own mentoring of students, it occurred to me that they fit into three areas.
- Feedback. There were two things I got from my graduate school mentors that had a huge impact on my career. One was honest feedback. In my talk I mention how early in my studies my thesis advisor, Lou Penner, gave me clear feedback about having to improve my writing. That feedback set me on a path to work on writing that continues to this day. Whether it is at school or at work, people need feedback. Mentors who provide honest and constructive feedback direct mentee efforts and help them hone important skills.
- Facilitation. Another important thing I got from a mentor in graduate school was facilitation. As I mention in the talk, it was a great suggestion by my dissertation advisor, Steve Cohen, that I pursue a particular line of study. That simple hint led me to develop a line of research that has gone on for nearly 50 years by myself and some of my former students. There are many ways that mentors facilitate, but much of it involves keeping an eye on mentees and when appropriate providing opportunities and removing barriers. Mentors also are available to provide support when needed to help mentees stay focused on their goals.
- Flexibility. One thing I learned from being a mentor of doctoral students is how different they are in their needs and styles. This means the approach taken will differ across mentees. For example, some work very independently so for them imposing structure and supervising closely can be stifling. Others thrive on structure and do their best work when mentors clarify what is expected and help map out goals and actions. For them providing too much autonomy can be stressful and can get in the way of them doing their best. My advice is to accept that one size does not fit all, and let the mentee guide you over time into finding the right balance. Some will need a lot of attention, and others not so much. One of the challenges in supervising doctoral students is that they can have very different career goals, and so what they want from the mentor can be very different.
Mentoring is an important activity in school and work. When done well, it can have benefits for both mentees and mentors.