We've all heard the age-old advice: Find a terrific mentor. Ask them good questions. Learn from their successes and failures. Gather feedback from them before making high-stakes decisions. But what makes a terrific mentor? Can we identify the "secret sauce" to excellent mentorship?
Brian Uzzi, Yifang Ma, and Satyam Mukherjee have conducted a fascinating large-scale study that may shed some important light on this question. The scholars compiled a remarkable dataset of over 37,000 scientists and mentees. They examined more than 1 million research papers produced by these scholars over a 57 year period. Moreover, they looked at major prizes won by the researchers.
They found something quite interesting. The most successful protégés often make their make in subject areas distinct from those in which their mentors earned their stellar reputations. Kellogg Insight described the research in a recent article as follows:
In some ways, this goes against conventional wisdom: students who are successful and carry on their mentors’ work are often perceived as rising stars. But in the long run, the most successful scientists are those who chart their own paths.
Uzzi and his colleagues try to identify what makes terrific mentors whose protégés soar. They argue that the best mentors don't try to create a "mini-me" at all. However, they do share a "secret sauce" with their mentees. What is this secret sauce? Again, here's an excerpt from the Kellogg Insight article about the research:
It’s clear that the best mentors pass on something that goes far beyond subject-matter expertise. (If that were the case, mini-me mentees would have been the most likely to succeed.) Uzzi and his coauthors believe that what’s being passed between future prizewinners and protégés is tacit knowledge. 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.
That's the secret sauce. Tacit knowledge. In a mentoring relationship, focus on the critical skills that enabled the mentor to succeed, not just the subject matter expertise.