Mentoring That Matters

Prof. Dr. Laura Lunsford, Expert on Talent Development, Mentoring, and Leadership, Shares Her Insights on Successful Mentoring and Mentoring Programs

What does it take to cre­ate an effec­tive men­tor­ing pro­gram? Prof. Dr. Lau­ra Lunsford con­tin­ues to explore this ques­tion and oth­ers in her research about men­tor­ing and men­tor­ing pro­grams. The full pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy is based at Camp­bell Uni­ver­si­ty (North Car­oli­na, Unit­ed States), where she is also assis­tant dean of the School of Edu­ca­tion and Human Sci­ences. Prof. Dr. Lunsford shares her exper­tise on men­tor­ing pro­grams and lead­er­ship devel­op­ment not only in her role as an aca­d­e­m­ic leader, but also as a con­sul­tant, speak­er, coach, and author. Prof. Dr. Lunsford puts her schol­ar­ly knowl­edge into prac­tice at Lead Men­tor Devel­op, a con­sul­tan­cy she co-found­ed focus­ing on men­tor­ing, coach­ing, lead­er­ship, and tal­ent devel­op­ment. Engage­ment spe­cial­ist Christin Graml sat down with Prof. Dr. Lunsford dur­ing her recent stay at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regens­burg (Ger­many) as a Ful­bright Schol­ar to gain insight into some of the facets that make men­tor­ing and men­tor­ing pro­grams successful.
You are an expert and a researcher in tal­ent devel­op­ment, men­tor­ing, and lead­er­ship. Would you please tell us a lit­tle bit about your areas of exper­tise and your cur­rent research focus?
My schol­ar­ly inter­ests have focused on men­tor­ing and lead­er­ship as routes for tal­ent devel­op­ment. In terms of men­tor­ing, I’ve been inter­est­ed from a psy­cho­log­i­cal per­spec­tive. I explore ques­tions such as, “What are the process­es and behav­iors of men­tor­ing, and what makes a for­mal rela­tion­ship more effec­tive?” I am also inter­est­ed in how to help peo­ple start and assess men­tor­ing pro­grams. On the lead­er­ship side, I’m inter­est­ed in lead­er­ship and lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, but also the “dark side.” I’ve writ­ten about the top­ics of tox­ic lead­er­ship and destruc­tive leadership.

In the men­tor­ing line of research, I’m more focused on envi­ron­ments. I’m inter­est­ed in, for exam­ple, the influ­ence of cul­ture, what char­ac­ter­is­tics of cul­ture are rel­e­vant, for exam­ple, in nation­al cul­ture, or in dis­ci­pli­nary cul­tures. That’s part of the work I’m doing here at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regens­burg. On the lead­er­ship side, I’m still quite inter­est­ed in the destruc­tive com­po­nent I pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, because peo­ple tend to think it’s just the per­son, but what about the envi­ron­ment? What is it about envi­ron­ments that make it pos­si­ble for poor lead­ers to con­tin­ue in their posi­tions rather than get eject­ed from the sit­u­a­tion? All of these ques­tions have to do with tal­ent devel­op­ment. If you have good, or what some schol­ars call “evoca­tive envi­ron­ments,” then peo­ple thrive; the peo­ple do bet­ter and the orga­ni­za­tions do better. 
What inspired you to pur­sue this line of work and research?
I ran a mer­it schol­ar­ship pro­gram for many years in the Unit­ed States. We cre­at­ed a faculty–student men­tor­ing pro­gram, and I was intrigued as to why some stu­dents thrived in a men­tor­ing pro­gram and oth­er stu­dents didn’t—despite the fact that all of the stu­dents were very gift­ed, very moti­vat­ed, and had excel­lent grades. That first got me inter­est­ed into men­tor­ing and what’s hap­pen­ing in these rela­tion­ships that works so well for some peo­ple but not for oth­ers. On the lead­er­ship side, my hus­band, Dr. Art Padil­la, also writes about lead­er­ship. I’ve always been inter­est­ed in lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, espe­cial­ly for younger peo­ple. As my hus­band and I did more work togeth­er on destruc­tive lead­er­ship, I start­ed look­ing at the “dark” side of men­tor­ing: the tor­men­tors. I want­ed to know how we can under­stand and lim­it destruc­tive behav­ior. Such behav­ior is what can derail peo­ple from being suc­cess­ful, yet we don’t tend to pay as much atten­tion to that. Addi­tion­al­ly, Dr. Rena Sub­ot­nik, direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Psy­chol­o­gy in Schools and Edu­ca­tion at the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion (APA), has been a men­tor of mine. I went to vis­it her when I was think­ing about a dis­ser­ta­tion top­ic. We talked about many top­ics, and one was men­tor­ing relat­ed to tal­ent­ed stu­dents. She helped me choose well, as these top­ics have real­ly held my interest. 
You co-run a con­sul­tan­cy called Lead Men­tor Devel­op. What is the pro­gram about and what was your inspi­ra­tion for start­ing it?
Prof. Dr. Vic­ki Bak­er is a col­league of mine with whom I real­ly enjoy work­ing. Each year, we spend time think­ing about our goals. We are friends and pro­vide peer men­tor­ing to each oth­er. We do sim­i­lar, but com­ple­men­tary work and real­ly like doing it togeth­er. I have been asked to do many work­shops and talks, and so Vic­ki and I cre­at­ed a web­site and a lim­it­ed cor­po­ra­tion to han­dle the con­sult­ing. It’s fun, because I can do what I like and be hon­est if I can help peo­ple or not in terms of men­tor­ing. Often, the work will con­sist of talks about men­tor­ing, work­shops on pro­grams, and how to help build par­tic­i­pant inter­est and skill in being an effec­tive men­tor or mentee. 
It’s impor­tant that peo­ple under­stand that men­tor­ing, like many human behav­iors, is a skill that can and should be developed.
Why do you think it’s impor­tant for the pub­lic to be informed about these topics?
As humans, we do a lot of dif­fer­ent things every day, includ­ing hav­ing to fig­ure out how to inter­act with oth­er peo­ple. We use our expe­ri­ences to shape our behav­iors, but the fact is that some­times our expe­ri­ence mis­leads us in devel­op­ing beliefs that are incor­rect. For exam­ple, many peo­ple believe you are “born” a good men­tor or not. It’s impor­tant that peo­ple under­stand that men­tor­ing, like many human behav­iors, is a skill that can and should be devel­oped. Often, it’s not explic­it how we learn about men­tor­ing, so more clear­ly explain­ing what effec­tive men­tor­ing behav­iors and sup­ports are may enhance the chance that peo­ple are going to do men­tor­ing well and learn how to exit grace­ful­ly from rela­tion­ships that aren’t as effec­tive. I think it’s impor­tant that the pub­lic real­izes there is a sci­ence about men­tor­ing. My hope is to sup­port oth­ers to focus on the skills that are going to enhance mentees’ per­for­mance and our per­for­mance as mentors. 
You wrote the defin­i­tive The Men­tor’s Guide: Five steps to build a suc­cess­ful men­tor pro­gram. What are some cen­tral aspects that make a men­tor­ing pro­gram successful?
After doing decades of work­shops on men­tor­ing pro­grams, I learned that one of the hard­est things for peo­ple to do at the begin­ning is to clar­i­fy the goal of their pro­gram. What is the rea­son for this men­tor­ing pro­gram? For exam­ple, I once worked with a first-gen­er­a­tion men­tor­ing pro­gram. Their thoughts about men­tor­ing were good, but they hadn’t fleshed out the rea­son for the pro­gram. We got down to their under­ly­ing rea­son, which was to keep stu­dents in school. None of their pro­gram activ­i­ties, how­ev­er, talked about this rea­son, and then the orga­ni­za­tion won­dered why the pro­gram wasn’t effec­tive. The men­tors and mentees were meet­ing, but they nev­er talked about, for exam­ple, resources on cam­pus for tutor­ing, learn­ing strate­gies, con­fi­dence and moti­va­tion issues relat­ed to stay­ing in school, or any of the oth­er resources that one would expect if their goal was to retain stu­dents. This shows that it’s pos­si­ble for peo­ple to meet and like each oth­er, but not talk about any­thing that has to do with the men­tor­ing pro­gram goal. The more the pro­gram is clear on what it wants to achieve and why men­tor­ing is going to do that, the bet­ter job the pro­gram can do of select­ing par­tic­i­pants, mak­ing sure activ­i­ties sup­port those goals, and hav­ing a strong assess­ment plan. Peo­ple often want to start pick­ing peo­ple and hav­ing them meet up, but they haven’t always thought out “what’s the point?” Then they won­der why peo­ple stop par­tic­i­pat­ing or aren’t quite sure what to do. 
When you were a youth or young pro­fes­sion­al, did you have some­one who men­tored you? If so, how did this per­son or these peo­ple pos­i­tive­ly influ­ence you and your path?
Look­ing back, I had sev­er­al peo­ple who helped me. In high school, I had sev­er­al teach­ers who took a strong inter­est in my aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. With their sup­port, I was able to get a full mer­it schol­ar­ship to attend col­lege. That made me the first in my fam­i­ly to go to col­lege. Then when I was in col­lege at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, the schol­ar­ship direc­tor there became a good men­tor by help­ing me weave my way through col­lege from elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing to psychology. 
In what par­tic­u­lar ways was your schol­ar­ship direc­tor a good men­tor to you?
He always had an open door and gave me the feel­ing that you could stop by any­time and that you knew some­one on cam­pus. He was very approach­able and did a good job with con­fi­dence building—things that we now know are so impor­tant for men­tor­ing. He was also able to con­nect me with peo­ple, for exam­ple alum­ni, who had shared sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences with me. Look­ing back, his approach­a­bil­i­ty, his con­fi­dence build­ing, and the con­nec­tions he facil­i­tat­ed were all real­ly impor­tant for me. 
Espe­cial­ly when you’re think­ing about men­tor­ing high­ly tal­ent­ed peo­ple, one impor­tant trait is the abil­i­ty for a men­tor to adjust their style and under­stand the goals of the per­son they’re men­tor­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, the abil­i­ty to ask the right ques­tion is important.
Many traits and prac­tices make a good men­tor. In your opin­ion, what are the most impor­tant ones?
Espe­cial­ly when you’re think­ing about men­tor­ing high­ly tal­ent­ed peo­ple, one impor­tant trait is the abil­i­ty for a men­tor to adjust their style and under­stand the goals of the per­son they’re men­tor­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, the abil­i­ty to ask the right ques­tion is impor­tant. For exam­ple, if it’s in a research sce­nario, it’s the abil­i­ty to help the mentee fig­ure out what would be an inter­est­ing research ques­tion to pur­sue or ask­ing the right ques­tion that will real­ly pro­mote reflec­tion for the mentee. I think at that lev­el, the mentee will great­ly ben­e­fit from a skilled men­tor who can help ask ques­tions to clar­i­fy what is impor­tant to pur­sue per­son­al­ly or professionally. 
Would you say these are train­able or teach­able qual­i­ties? Can some­one grow into becom­ing a bet­ter or more effec­tive mentor?
Like most skills, some of us are nat­u­ral­ly bet­ter at them than oth­er peo­ple, and most peo­ple can improve their skills. Can every­one be an effec­tive men­tor? Prob­a­bly not, either because they don’t have the inter­est or the time. So, yes, I do think, like many things in our lives—including tal­ent development—that skill devel­op­ment and prac­tic­ing skills are impor­tant, but some peo­ple are more nat­u­ral­ly good at it from the start than oth­er peo­ple. This is true in many domains. 
In addi­tion to being an expert in men­tor­ing, you are also an expert in lead­er­ship. How do you define a good leader?
For me, the leader is the least impor­tant fac­tor in the whole equa­tion, which is sur­pris­ing to most peo­ple. There’s a quote, I think from War­ren Ben­nis, that goes some­thing like, “Lead­er­ship is like light bulbs. We need a light bulb to see, but it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter all that much which light bulb you get as long as you have one that works.” I feel the same about lead­ers. That being said, there are many traits of a good leader, such as lis­ten­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, integri­ty, and the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate a vision and moti­vate people. 
I will often ask the ques­tion, “How do you want to be dif­fer­ent in six months or one year as a result of engag­ing with [your men­tor]?” That ques­tion will often help mentees gain clar­i­ty about what they can bring to those dis­cus­sions and the relationship.
How can men­tors show their mentees how to become good leaders?
A lot about men­tor­ing is often invis­i­ble to peo­ple, so I encour­age peo­ple through work­shops and talks to be more explic­it about what they’re doing and why. Men­tors should explain to the mentee, “Here’s why I’m doing this” or “here’s why I’m ask­ing this ques­tion,” because then it makes the invis­i­ble more vis­i­ble to the mentee. Espe­cial­ly when you’re think­ing about lead­er­ship, some shad­ow­ing expe­ri­ences can be quite impor­tant in pro­vid­ing an occa­sion for your mentee to see that you don’t have it all fig­ured out. Those shad­ow­ing expe­ri­ences can help the mentee see your thought process when tack­ling chal­leng­ing prob­lems, because when you move up to be a leader, that’s what you’re doing. You’re try­ing to solve problems—whether it’s in your dis­ci­pline or organization—that are not easy to solve. If the prob­lems were easy to solve, then oth­er peo­ple would have solved them, and they wouldn’t have fall­en into your lap to address. 
A lot of atten­tion is giv­en out there on how to become a good men­tor, but an effec­tive men­tor­ing rela­tion­ship takes two. What is your advice on how to become a good mentee?
Even a great men­tor has a bad day, so we some­times have out­sized expec­ta­tions about the char­ac­ter­is­tics of effec­tive men­tors or what they can real­ly do. What mentees can best do is to use their time well and their men­tors’ time well, and also have a sense of why they want to con­nect with this per­son. What is the mentee’s goal? Maybe the mentee’s goal is that they’re not sure what their goals are yet and they need to fig­ure them out, but they should have some­thing that they’re try­ing to learn. I will often ask the ques­tion, “How do you want to be dif­fer­ent in six months or one year as a result of engag­ing with this per­son?” That ques­tion will often help mentees gain clar­i­ty about what they can bring to those dis­cus­sions and the relationship. 

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