2019
How Can You Make Mentoring More Effective
Illustration by Sebastien Thibault

How Can You Make Mentoring More Effective?

We explored what makes for an effective mentorship relationship with three Booth experts.

The mentorship model has had a long run: with roots stretching back to ancient Greece, it still plays a key role in the instruction of the next generation of leaders. And this is true across many disciplines, from science to education to business. But it’s evolved a lot, especially in recent years. These days, the mentee is often a much more active participant in his or her own learning than ever before, which can be a benefit to both sides—and those around them.

Ayelet Fishbach is Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing.

Based on my research and my own experience, I’d say that you want to consider what your mentees already know and what their goals are. Ask them to first reflect upon their own knowledge and objectives, and then help them derive action plans from what they say. The mistake people sometimes make is reflected best in the old “bowl” metaphor—thinking of mentees (or students) as a bowl into which we pour knowledge. But in reality, learning is a much more active process for learners or mentees. They need to actively seek knowledge.

At the University of Chicago, we use the Socratic method of learning: the teacher’s job is to ask questions. It’s through questions, not answers, that the mentee is led on a path.

When people are asked to give advice to others in a similar situation, their attitude is often, ‘What do I know?’ But the truth is that they often know quite a lot.

Ayelet Fishbach

My own research has looked at how giving advice can actually help people adopt an action plan more than getting advice from an expert. People often have pretty good knowledge of what they need to do, but implementing it is difficult because they might lack confidence or might not even be aware of how much they already know. When people are asked to give advice to others in a similar situation, their attitude is often, “What do I know?” But the truth is that they often know quite a lot.

In our new study we asked people to either give advice to others or we gave them advice from an expert. In one instance we had some students receive advice from their teachers on how to motivate themselves to study and we had other students give advice to younger students on the subject. As it turned out, the students who gave advice studied harder and for longer afterward than those who received advice. So giving advice—even imperfect advice—ended up being more motivating than reading someone else’s advice. Interestingly, this is counterintuitive to many. When asked, most people said they’d rather receive than give advice, and when reading two pieces of advice (one from an expert and one from a study participant), most people thought the expert’s advice was better.

Apply this to the context of mentorship: sure, there are many things mentees don’t know. But they also know some things and they know how to actively seek out answers. So don’t think about the role of the mentor as “I’ll do the talking; the mentee will do the listening.” Though it can be tempting to start lecturing, this is not so effective.

Instead, start by asking your mentees what they know and what they’d like to find out. It’s important that they arrive at the answer themselves, and with a few guided questions, you can get them there. Start with questions such as: “How do you feel you’re doing?” “What can you improve on?” and “What do you feel you should be doing moving forward?” Remember that a good mentor is one who asks the questions and makes the mentee find the answers.


Heather Wade, ’18 (EXP-23), is client director at Merkle Aquila, a consultancy firm in London.

How Can You Make Mentoring More Effective Illustration by Sebastien Thibault

Whether you’re looking for a mentor or being mentored yourself, finding people who are in different areas of business is key. Collaborating with mentors and mentees from complementary areas really helps on both sides because you can see things in new ways. It’s certainly helped me gain a better perspective and understanding of business. It’s also led to specific measurable monetary outcomes in terms of return on time invested, as I’ve taken what I’ve learned from the mentoring process and used it to drive better results on key projects.

For instance, I mentor an analyst, but I’m not an analyst myself. Through engaging with the skills my mentee has that I don’t share, I am better able to understand timescales and analysts’ needs for projects I’m leading. Then, I can write better briefs for my clients and manage expectations better. And there are other benefits of mentoring others. For instance, it’s helped me in terms of communicating further up the business. I’ve mentored people who have helped me understand what’s going on more fully within different cohorts, and then we take those themes and help others understand what we could be doing better as a whole.

Finding people naturally generally works best. This is counterintuitive, since most programs match people intentionally. But it works very well in smaller companies to let people naturally gravitate toward others who have interesting perspectives. In general it doesn’t work to be told, “This is your mentor. You have no input.” That’s tough.

What’s important is letting the mentees voice what they want to discuss and learn, and nailing that down swiftly. Some mentees may be looking to expand their network, understand new things, or get a better sense of what’s going on in the business as a whole. So understanding what people want to use mentorship for is important, and you get to this by asking enough questions to get under the skin of what they’re looking for. Then you can tailor the mentorship sessions toward these key areas.

You really have to put the time and effort in—not just grab your mentees for 10 minutes when you have a break.

Heather Wade

People who come in right out of business school may have a very different perspective of the world of work and what they’re looking for. I’ve learned a lot from that as well. Oftentimes people are looking for high project turnover, lots of different things to be working on at once. This is a shift from five or 10 years ago. And as a mentor, you may have to help guide a mentee about expectations. We take on interns and new graduates. When they’re brand-new, we still look to find them a mentor from a different area of business, and they generally appreciate this alternative perspective.

Finally, I would say, you really have to put the time and effort in—not just grab your mentees for 10 minutes when you have a break. You have to make time for them. When you’ve said you’ll follow up on something, you have to. At the same time, you can’t overpromise. A mentor is generally not the same as a line manager, and isn’t necessarily going to be consulted about promotions or new projects for their mentees.

For me good mentorship is really about the collaboration and the sharing of skills—and there are massive benefits that can come of it for both sides. It’s not a one-way relationship. As a mentor, you can learn too. And you can learn a lot.


 Michael Sykes is a second-year student in the Full-Time MBA Program and a LEAD facilitator for first-year MBA students.

One of the things that Booth has taught me is that there are different types of mentorships. There’s the formal mentorship between a senior person and a junior person. But there’s also mentorship among peers, as is the case at Booth with LEAD facilitators like myself and first-year MBAs. Often, the first-year students have the same work experience as I do, if not more. So relying on my own expertise as a manager isn’t necessarily enough to make me a good mentor. What I learned to do was rely on their experience—it’s more about me asking thought-provoking questions so the mentees can arrive at insights through self-discovery. This is mentorship of peers.

In order to be a successful mentor in this type of relationship, you have to build an understanding of the mentees’ goals and the issues they’re grappling with. I really care about what they’re working on and what they’re passionate about. It’s best to spend time on that, rather than on what you as a mentor think they should prioritize. It’s really about building skills in what the mentees find most valuable versus what you think is most valuable.

Often the assumption is that a mentee will come in knowing exactly how to use the relationship. Not so.

Michael Sykes

Part of this is recognizing the strengths of each individual’s experience, which can be very diverse. We have first-year students who are medical doctors or pharmacists—they bring an entirely different set of skills from their classmates who spent five years in high finance. But what is common among all the students is a great ability to solve problems by drawing on a body of knowledge. We can develop or shore up whatever’s missing within skill sets. The doctors get to learn the tactical points of finance and the bankers might learn more about stress management because they realize no one is going to die if we don’t get the WACC calculations right.

This is the magic of Booth’s MBA programs—students come from all different places and all kinds of jobs.

On the other hand, one mistake I’ve seen mentors make is not leaning in early to coach someone into becoming a good mentee. Often the assumption is that a mentee will come in knowing exactly how to use the relationship. Not so. There are situations where, as they say, you don’t know what you don’t know. Great mentors recognize these situations by asking thoughtful and probing questions. They say, “These are some things you might want to think about.” If you expect all of that to come from the mentee, it may not work as well as it could. That’s the delicate balance that good mentors strike. They know when to back off, to let someone self-discover, and they also know when to push their mentee’s thinking.

—By Alice G. Walton