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What’s the Secret Ingredient to Great Mentorship? 

  • 28th Jun'21

“Find a mentor” is a common piece of advice everyone gives, and no one second-guesses it. But what does the evidence say about the benefits of a great mentorship? 

Nothing conclusive till lately. However, a recent study from Brian Uzzi, a Kellogg School of Management professor, reveals that mentorship is beneficial—especially when mentors pass along unwritten, intuitive types of knowledge.


Quantifying the Value of a Mentor

Uzzi and his collaborators performed research using data from huge databases of their fields' intellectual "family trees" built by scientists in the previous decade, tracking which scholars advised which students.

However, because mentees aren't allocated to mentors at random, it's difficult to say if their achievements or failures are due to mentorship or other variables. 

So they started by identifying six mentor groups that appeared “exactly the same on paper,” according to Uzzi. These statistically comparable mentors drew pupils with similar abilities, as anticipated. 

After addressing the assortativity issue, Uzzi said they still needed to find out how to determine if mentors pass on important knowledge to their mentees.


A “Hidden” Skill That Sets Good Mentors Apart

They discovered this by identifying and analyzing groups of identical mentors that attracted students of similar quality, except that one mentor in each of these groups had a secret characteristic: they’re going to be a future prizewinner. This allowed them to compare the outcomes of future prizewinners' students with non-prizewinning mentors' students.


The Best Mentors Pass Along “Special Sauce”

When the researchers compared the performance of future prizewinners' protégés to that of non-prizewinners, they discovered that future prizewinners' protégés were nearly six times more likely to become superstars in their area than equally brilliant non-prizewinners' protégés. 

Further, the most successful protégés are those who learn under future prizewinners yet eventually work in different fields.


Great Mentors Offer More than Just Expertise

So, what's the secret ingredient? Unfortunately, only a few indications are provided by current research. 

  • The finest mentors pass on more than just subject-matter knowledge. 
  • Tacit information was handed down by the mentors. 
  • Mentees also took up knowledge that is difficult to define and is typically gained via experience.


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