Mentor, rather than imprint

In many recent talks on #mentoring, I’ve continued to distinguish effective and progressive mentoring from many other forms of support that we offer, particularly in academic environments, and often under the banner of “mentoring”.

We frequently offer advising and call it mentoring. Advising is distinct from mentoring in that the former is advice that is helpful for anyone on a specific path. For example, all students completing a particular degree must take certain courses, perhaps participate in particular internships, or accomplish other specific goals. Mentoring is specific advice and input based on personal knowledge of a particular individual.

We also frequently engage in imprinting and call it mentoring. I’ve described imprinting based on the common understanding of a mature individual “training” less experienced individuals in navigating safely through a context based first and foremost on the mature individual’s experiences or behavioral norms of a group. One of the most common examples is a “mother” duck leading ducklings, who “fall in line” behind her.

Imprinting has its place, for example the ducklings learn (hopefully) how to safely navigating their environments, in order to survive, grow and persist.

However, mentoring should not be imprinting.

I have met resistance (and not infrequently so) to my suggestion that mentoring should not be centered on imprinting, which the objectors perceive as simply helping one learn how to navigate safely through an environment. Moving wholesale away from imparting principles for navigating an environment is not exactly what I’m suggesting when I indicate that mentoring ≠ imprinting.

Instead, I’m suggesting that mentoring can’t (or shouldn’t) focus on an individual learning to “replay” exactly the moves that a mentor has made to pursue success. Rather, the advice from a mentor should focus on why specific moves were made – i.e., “to what end” specific moves where made. Then, a discussion can be engaged as to what specific ways a mentee may achieve a particular end.

This perspective focuses on the “why” rather than the “what” and acknowledges that individuals may have distinct ways or motivations to approach the same destination. Alternatively, the individuals may be navigating the same “training space” as the mentor with a completely different destination in mind upon leaving the space. Imprinting doesn’t always allow for these realities.

So imprint if you desire, but understand that it’s not mentoring…and it may be self-serving and self-affirmative.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM

Evolving From a Focus on Mentee to Cultivating a Mentoring Ecosystem

Many current “mentoring” programs focus primarily on interventions for those being mentored, i.e. mentees (or sometimes referred to as trainees). All too frequently, these so-called interventions focus on fixing “deficits” in individual mentees so that they can “succeed” in the environment.

What goes under-recognized is that such an approach assumes infallibility of the environment or context, while ignoring the impact of structural deficits and biases of mentors and other powers that be.

Whether focused on engaging undergraduates in research experiences, mentoring graduate students to success, or increasing equity and inclusion for mentees and faculty in STEM–most activities and funds have been laser focused on deficits in individuals. There has been significant hesitation, and at times downright denial, about a need to engage environmental factors that impede growth and advancement of all individuals.

Of late, there has been increasing interest and engagement of the role of mentor preparation and training in mentoring effectiveness, particularly in STEM. A national and highly visible effort has been the NIH-funded National Research Mentoring Network.

To fully support efficacious mentoring and impactful outcomes for individuals from diverse groups, including minoritized and marginalized individuals, we need to evolve and expand our focus to include mentee, mentor, and the entire mentoring ecosystem. It is this latter point that has received much less attention; yet the ecosystem may indeed be one of the most critical factors.

Until we are prepared and ready to activate a focus on the role of the ecosystem and environmental stewardship of the ecosystem by mentors and leaders, we will continue to have incremental success in advancing equity in STEM and the academy.

If you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM

Is Your Mentoring Network a Cacophony or Symphony?

I’m a proud orchestra Mom of an accomplished violist, so I’ve heard lots of concerts over the years. I’m always struck by the transition from the near cacophony of the warm-up to the beautiful melody of symphonic music.

To seasoned ears, the warm-up is not really a cacophony. Yet, it is striking to hear how distinct the same instruments playing randomly sound relative to those same instruments functioning in networked harmony and interplay.

I write, think, and extol frequently about the power of mentoring networks for supporting individuals’ success.

The functionality of efficacious mentoring networks thrives with integration of the multiple nodes of which it is composed.

In a recent discussion of mentoring models, I highlight this integration as the “edges” (relationships) connecting “nodes” (mentors or mentoring resources) to the individual being mentored or supported. Focusing on the connections, in addition to multiple sources of mentoring in a network, is one means for assembling and directing a symphonic mentoring network.


Note. Shown is an example of an mentee-centered mentoring network including mentor (represented as circles) or nonhuman mentoring resources (represented as rectangles) nodes. The nodes are connected by ties or edges, which represent the relationships or interactions between mentee and mentor or engagement of mentee with a particular resource, with thinner dotted lines (weaker) to thicker solid lines (stronger) representing the strength of the relationship; and the length of the edges represents relative distance (professional, physical, or emotional). Adapted from Montgomery, 2017, SAGE Open.

Although a network starts with assembling multiple mentoring sources, a lot of input from multiple mentors in and of itself is not necessarily valuable. Lots of uncoordinated or disaggregated input can indeed lead to mentoring discord.

Discord can arise from being an avid collector of information and input without sufficient reflection or integration. This reason for discord can be especially true when your major purpose is to “shop” for information that matches your preconceived idea of what you think is right for you anyway. Alternatively, simply collating information from distinct sources—in the absence of critically reflecting on how and why particular input or advice makes sense for your established goals—can result in cacophony.

It is important to actively and intentionally direct the harmonic nature of your mentoring network. You have to be the principal conductor of your own mentoring symphony! Moving from cacophony to symphony in cultivating your mentoring network requires intentional reflection on the players (mentors, mentoring resources), as well as how the outputs from these players should be actively orchestrated to compose a melodious outcome (personal/professional goal/achievement).

If you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM