Five Steps for Effective Mentoring: Part 2, Learning By Doing

How to be an effective mentor (Part 2)

Posted Oct 01, 2010

The second step in successful mentoring is Learning By Doing.

Assisting the mentee to be successful in his job and career requires that you work directly with him to teach the skills he needs to be successful  And one of the best ways to teach skills is by allowing the mentee to have practical, hands-on experience with the process he wants to master.

Typically, the people I mentor have career goals like becoming a professor at a research university, or they want to embark on a private or public sector research career. This requires that they understand the process, from start to finish, of doing research, and thus an integral component of mentoring these people is giving them the opportunity to do research themselves. Others I have mentored wish to be teachers, for example, at liberal arts colleges.

Successfully mentoring people with career goals like these is not easy. Good research and teaching skills can’t be taught simply from books or lectures; rather the mentor needs to work closely with each individual, and to allow each the opportunity practice the skills she needs by actually engaging in research and teaching.

A successful mentor also has to understand that becoming a skilled researcher or teacher is not just one skill, but actually involves becoming proficient at a broad array of skills. Thus, the mentor needs to start the process by diagnosing which skills the mentee has already mastered and which need development. The mentor then should develop a strategy for improving those skills already learned, and for developing those not present.

Then a successful mentor should work with each individual in the application of these skills; repetition, evaluation, and positive feedback will then reinforce strong skills and help develop weak skills. Learning By Doing requires that the mentor observe and assist the mentee as he attempts to accomplish the task at hand, to evaluate his performance, and to provide positive feedback about the quality of the work.

For example, writing is an integral component of research, so if you are mentoring someone who seeks a career in research she needs to become a skilled writer. But few mentees start as skilled writers, especially in the academic writing style that is common in the social sciences. So mentoring these individuals requires Learning By Doing -- let them take control of a writing project, and let them do the writing.

In this situation, a mentor practicing Learning By Doing will need to read draft after draft, to provide substantial feedback and help. But through the repetition of Learning By Doing, the mentee will gain the skills needed to become a successful writer.

It is exactly this aspect of mentoring that I believe many otherwise thoughtful and talented potential mentors get wrong. Learning By Doing is difficult. It is not the most efficient way in the short term to get work done, it can be tedious and sometimes painful, and even quite frustrating for the mentor. Of course, the mentor can produce the work product himself more quickly and probably more accurately. But if the mentor steps in and does the work, then the mentee will lose an important opportunity to learn critical skills.

In Learning By Doing, the mentor needs to make allowances for mistakes and errors, for inefficiencies in the work product, and for difficult discussions with the person being mentored about why a work product has not been done well. But a successful mentor will use these as opportunities to teach strategies for future improvement.

I’ll use a simple example, drawn from my own experience. Consider a new graduate student, faced for the first time with writing a publication-quality research paper. Let’s say that the research itself has already been done, and the apparently simple task is for the student to write the results of the research into a paper.

Many less successful mentors fail to appreciate that a task they have learned and mastered through repetition, practice, and experience is not straightforward. They will assume that students will figure it out without active assistance -- commonly they think that by sending their students to read other academic papers in the library or online that they will somehow just figure out a process for the production of a research paper.

But the successful mentor will realize that writing a research paper is a process, and that few students will discover a useful process on their own. A successful mentor will work with the student on the process, providing for the student a framework for the production of the research paper, but at the same time refraining from writing the paper themselves. The mentor will provide the student a template for producing a research paper, work with the student on the outline, suggest ways to write each section of the paper, read drafts of sections, and the paper when available, and continue to provide productive criticism. 

A successful mentor will not let the student flounder in isolation. Instead, he operates within those boundaries, providing a structure within which the student will Learn By Doing. 

Again, Learning By Doing is time-consuming, painful, and in the short term inefficient for the mentor. But in the end, Learning By Doing is one of the most important strategies of the successful mentor. Successful Learning By Doing will yield an individual who can take the initiative and produce the required product without substantial intervention from the mentor. At that point the successful mentor will be able to take advantage of a more efficient employee or student, and a more effective working environment.      

NOTE:  This is the second of a five part series.  Part 1, Communication of the Master Plan, was published earlier.