Mentoring is one of those essential ingredients to a leader’s success that is often talked about but difficult to understand and quantify. Not any longer. Research from Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, shows that mentorship is indeed beneficial.

A study entitled, “Mentorship and protégé success in STEM fields”, analyses the careers of more than 37,000 scientist mentors and protégés. The study suggests that mentors who pass the thought process of how they came up with topics, and how they studied the problem rather than the nuts and bolts of the study, produced mentees who are significantly more likely to become superstars in their fields.

In the study, they identified mentors who would later become scientific prize winners as those that had a “secret sauce”. They then reviewed the mentoring history of those & others prior to them becoming prize winners. Over time it showed that the mentees of these prize-winning mentors went on to do greater things in their own fields than the other mentees. In fact, the best performance of these mentees was not in the same field as the mentor but in others.

“It’s incumbent upon the mentee to branch out, take their mentor’s tacit knowledge, and do something that breaks new ground.”  Brian Uzzi

Great Mentors Offer More than Just Expertise

Mentees aren’t just learning concrete skills from their mentors. They’re also picking up how their mentors come up with research questions, how they brainstorm, how they interact with collaborators, and so on—knowledge that is difficult to codify and often learned by doing.

Three findings from the study:-

  1. Mentorship strongly predicts protégé success across diverse disciplines, with a 2×-to4× rise in a protégé’s likelihood of prizewinning.
  2. Mentorship is significantly associated with an increase in the probability of protégés pioneering their own research topics and being midcareer late bloomers.
  3. Contrary to conventional thought, protégés do not succeed most by following their mentors’ research topics but by studying original topics and co-authoring no more than a small fraction of papers with their mentors.

This study can be easily applied to leadership as no career progression is ever the same just like scientist mentors. Having mentors from the same field or in the case of leadership the same company can be of value to understanding internal politics. However, the “secret ingredient” is how the mentors approached their career progression the decisions made, the experience gained and the risks they took to get there.  Most successful leaders have had mentors from other parts of the industry or from outside the industry. The gold is in how the mentees apply this knowledge to their own careers, just like those in the STEM study performing best with their own topics not that of their mentors.

In the words of Maria Menounos, “You have to take control of your own career.” If you want to have your dream career you need to explore, understand what options you have, your expertise and learn how to get there.  Don’t limit your career by only accepting internal mentoring explore the option of external mentoring. The investment will open up new horizons when you access your mentor’s “secret ingredient”.

The original article

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