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The Mentor and the Protégé: What, Who, and How?

By Julie I. Johnson
From Dimensions
July/August 2017

Mentoring is about establishing and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships, either face-to-face or virtually. The format of a mentoring relationship can vary widely. We are most familiar with the traditional one-on-one format, in which a senior person mentors a junior person. Other forms of mentoring are reverse mentoring (junior mentors senior), group mentoring (multiple mentors and/or mentees), and even organization-to-organization mentoring. Mentoring can be formal, where a specific relationship is initiated, or informal, where an individual seeks or gives guidance and support but never sets up an intentional mentoring relationship. Much of this article is about the formal mentoring process. That said, it may also help you assess some of your informal mentoring relationships.

I’ve always been interested in developing people, probably stemming from my first career as a middle school math and science teacher. I’ve been interested in mentoring since my start in the museum field as a manager looking for developmental opportunities for my staff. (Developmental activities include job enrichment, coaching, mentoring, stretch assignments, job rotations, and job shadowing.)

I read everything I could find on mentoring and adult development. I was fortunate enough to have three wonderful female mentors; these women made sure I knew about opportunities across the field, invited me to attend meetings with them, and engaged me in conversations about my goals, power dynamics in the workplace, and issues in the field. In turn, I mentored former colleagues within and outside my organization.

What is mentoring?

The purpose of mentoring, first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey (Garvey, 2011), was initially about individual development and experiential learning. As the United States moved through the Industrial Revolution, mentoring took on the flavor of career development and sponsorship; in the United Kingdom and Europe, however, mentoring remained a developmental activity.

Mentoring relationships support mentees, or protégés, in developing confidence, competence, and credibility. Critical to the relationship are the protégé having opportunities to access challenging assignments to gain professional competence, being placed in high-trust positions that send positive signals to others, and receiving advice and counsel to help navigate the organizational cultures in which they work.

Typically, a mentor does not have direct reporting authority over the protégé, nor gives input on performance reviews. This can be very freeing for the protégé, who doesn’t have to worry about something they said being used in unintended ways. For the mentor, it means not having to feel like they “wasted their time” if the protégé seeks employment elsewhere because of their positive mentoring experience.

While developmental or career-focused mentoring can be beneficial for everyone, not all experiences are equal. Research indicates that women don’t experience the same outcomes from mentoring as men. The mentors of most women in one study had less clout than the mentors of their male counterparts (Ibarra, Carter, & Silva, 2010). In addition, the men in that study, but not the women, received a special kind of mentoring—sponsorship, whereby the mentor advocates for their protégé with senior executives.

In addition, Johnson, Thomas, and Brown (2017) found that women of color in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields did not have access to quality mentoring, and some were even unable to find a mentor. In an earlier study, Thomas (2001) showed a two-track system where protégés of color had lower quality experiences than their white counterparts. Since white males fill most senior roles in companies, even in science museums, senior-level mentors are most often white males. Smith and Johnson’s (2017) research suggested that male mentors treat their male and female protégés differently, which results in different outcomes. Each of the studies cited offers tips for improving the quality of mentoring.

Who is a mentor, and who is a protégé?

A mentor is a person with knowledge and experience to share with someone else—the protégé—who doesn’t yet have, but who would benefit from exposure to, that knowledge and experience. As noted earlier, mentoring has moved beyond the traditional one-on-one, senior-to-junior relationship and includes

  • Reverse mentoring: the protégé is senior to the mentor. For example, in today’s workplace with as many as five generations of individuals working together, Millennials often mentor senior and executive staff to help them gain a perspective of how the Millennial cohort perceives work and the world.
  • Peer group or network mentoring: two or more people in a mentoring relationship where the mentor role shifts among the peer group members, who may have similar or different ages and positions. Many leader development programs use a cohort-based model in which participants have a range of ages, perspectives, experiences, and skillsets. A goal is for participants to become peer mentors for each other once the formal program ends. For example, a subset of the cohort from the 2011 NextGen program (sponsored by the Getty Leadership Institute) included mid-career professionals from different types of museums and in different positions. They brought knowledge of their individual networks into the mentoring relationship with their peers.
  • Group mentoring: this can occur in three ways (Huizing, 2012)—one mentor working with a group of protégés; many (two or more) mentors working collaboratively with one protégé; and many mentors working collaboratively with many protégés. The last scenario differs from peer group mentoring because the mentor roles are assigned and do not shift.
  • Organization-to-organization mentoring: an organization as a whole shares knowledge and experience with another organization, likely with some combination of traditional, reverse, and group mentoring.

How does mentoring work?

Formal mentoring can be initiated by either mentor or protégé and involves five phases:

  1. Taking stock and identifying long-term objectives. The purpose of the mentoring relationship is determined first. What skills or perspectives does the protégé (or mentor) want to learn or develop? This information is then used to identify potential mentors (or protégés). For more on finding a mentor, see the sidebar below.
  2. Building rapport. Once a request has been made and accepted, the mentor and protégé get to know each other during their first few meetings.
  3. Setting directions. With a rapport established, it’s time to get down to business. The pair or group discusses goals and expectations for the mentoring relationship.
  4. Taking the mentoring journey. During the journey, it is important to check in about the relationship itself to ensure it is working for both mentor and protégé.
  5. Moving on. After some predetermined period, the pair or group determines if the goals have been met and if it is time to end the formal mentoring relationship.

Traditionally, mentoring has been a face-to-face activity, but people can now easily engage in virtual mentoring. Obvious benefits include access to a wider range of potential mentors, working with someone who is not local, and flexibility in meeting arrangements. Both mentors and protégés may need to think differently about how to develop and nurture the relationship due to distance; frequent check-ins are especially important.

What are the benefits of mentoring?

A mentoring relationship may focus on career or individual development. The benefits to a protégé can include learning about the museum field, improving their strengths, expanding their network, and having experiences that may lead to future career opportunities. A mentor has the benefits of feeling valuable and giving back to their profession.

Mentoring can also be a professional development opportunity for both mentor and protégé. Mentors can practice important “soft skills” such as deep listening, perspective taking, cogent argumentation, reflection, and setting the context for learning and development. Protégés also get the chance to practice some of these skills, as well as consider how to exercise leadership from their current position.

Some see being a mentor as a leadership development opportunity, which is supported by findings from my study of U.S. museum professionals’ perspectives on leadership development (Johnson, 2012). When asked about the types of activities their museums used as strategies for developing leaders, 39% identified mentoring. In a recent article, the current dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, James E. Ryan (2017), identified five questions that leaders should always be asking: “Wait, What?”; “I wonder why/if…?”; “Couldn’t we at least…?”; “How can I help?”; and “What truly matters?” A mentoring relationship may be one place to develop the confidence and competence in asking these types of questions.

What makes an effective mentor and an effective protégé?

Being a good listener is a critical skill for a mentor to have, but not the only skill (Harvard Business Review, 2004). An effective mentor

  • Gets the relationship off to a good start
  • Creates a foundation of support
  • Challenges the protégé to develop a plan for success
  • Gives actionable advice and feedback
  • Resists the temptation to solve the protégé’s problems
  • Critiques the behavior, not the person
  • Doesn’t allow the protégé to become dependent on the mentor
  • Knows when to say goodbye.

If you are considering taking on a mentor role, ask yourself a few questions. How effectively do you listen? Find out with this active listening self-assessment. How well versed are you at giving and receiving advice? Do you enjoy collaborative learning? Do you have facilitation and conflict management skills?

As with any other professional activity, getting training is important for being an effective mentor. The International Mentoring Association and the American Alliance of Museums both have resources. The Cultural Human Resources Council of Canada has a helpful list of competencies for managers of cultural organizations.

An effective protégé

  • Is clear about what they need from the mentoring relationship
  • Does some prior research and comes to meetings ready to initiate conversations, not just respond
  • Listens carefully, lets information percolate, and reflects on it
  • Takes responsibility for their own learning
  • Understands that they will at times feel challenged by a suggestion, idea, or task
  • Tries to meet a challenge in order to learn and grow
  • Is willing to experiment and work outside their comfort zone
  • Respects time parameters and confidentiality
  • Doesn’t insist on special favors that the mentor has not offered.

Articles written about the 21st-century workforce frequently list a few skills and behaviors as ones necessary for success. These include adaptation to rapid change, orientation toward innovation and creativity, flexibility, ability to deal with uncertainty and apply knowledge across a range of situations, and ability to work collaboratively. Mentoring can be a vehicle through which an individual, whether mentor or protégé, can learn and practice these skills. A mentoring relationship takes time, and neither a mentor nor a protégé should enter into one lightly, but the benefits to both parties typically outweigh the challenges.

Julie I. Johnson is program director of the Division on Research and Learning at the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C. She is also faculty in the Leadership in Museum Education program at Bank Street College, New York City. Johnson holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change.

About the image: Kim Kiehl (left) and Azuka MuMin (both of COSI, Columbus, Ohio, at the time this photo was taken) engage in a traditional one-on-one mentoring relationship. Photo by Julie I. Johnson.

Garvey, B. (2011). A very short, fairly interesting, and reasonably cheap book about coaching and mentoring. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Harvard Business Review. (2004). Coaching and mentoring: How to develop top talent and achieve stronger performance. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Huizing, R.L. (2012). Mentoring together: A literature review of group mentoring. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 20(1): 27–55.

Ibarra, H., Carter, N.M., & Silva, C. (2010). Why men still get more promotions than women. Harvard Business Review.

Johnson, J.I. (2012). Museums, leadership, and transfer: An inquiry into organizational supports for learning leadership. Ph.D. Dissertation, Antioch University.

Johnson, L., Thomas, K.M., & Brown, L. (2017). Women of color in the STEM academic workplace. In J. Balinger, B. Polnick, & B. Irby (Eds.) Women of color in STEM: Navigating the workplace. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Ryan, J.E. (2017). 5 questions leaders should be asking all the time. Harvard Business Review.

Smith, D.G., & Johnson, W.B. (2017). Male mentors shouldn’t hesitate to challenge their female mentees. Harvard Business Review.

Thomas, D.A. (2001). The truth about mentoring minorities: Race matters. Harvard Business Review, 79(4): 98–112.

Sidebar: How Do I Find a Mentor?

Finding a mentor can seem daunting, but my experience is that many people in the science museum field are willing to be mentors. The first step is to define the purpose of the relationship you are seeking. You need to know what you want so you can articulate this to a potential mentor. You also need to understand your own expectations and motivations. Why do you want a mentor? What do you hope you and your mentor might do and discuss? What is off-limits for the mentoring relationship? Do you expect a mentor to help you find a job?

With answers to these questions, you then need to find people to consider as potential mentors. I frequently get asked whether it’s better for someone to identify a mentor from within or outside their organization. The answer depends on several factors, including the protégé, the proposed mentor, the reasons for seeking mentoring, and the organization’s culture. Just because a person has been in their job for a long time doesn’t necessarily make that individual a good mentor. I suggest that you ask colleagues for recommendations, observe people at meetings or conferences, check for opportunities with a professional association you belong to, and read what other people in your profession write about. Asking family and friends may also yield recommendations.

Once you have a few people in mind, you need to make contact. If you know the person, consider a brief in-person conversation to make your request. If you don’t know the person, ask someone to introduce you. If you don’t have a connection to the individual, reach out anyway.

When you meet the person, you need to determine if they will be a good fit for you. Ask about the person’s interests and expertise; about their approach to mentoring (e.g., telling stories, learning together, having discussions); and whether they are interested and have time to take on a protégé. Ask about their previous mentoring relationships, including what worked and what didn’t. You might even ask for a reference, so you can talk to someone the person mentored previously.

If you’re also talking to other potential mentors, let the person know when you will get back to them. And last, don’t forget to thank the person for meeting with you! —J.I.J.

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