This Is the Most Important Part of Mentorship

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In books, TV, and movies, we love the wise teacher who trains pushes our hero to become their best self, like Obi-Wan Kenobi or, in his own terrible way, Tony Stark. We tend to crave it in life too, whether we're eager for dating advice or just trying to get our foot in the door career-wise. Ultimately, we believe we're seeking out one thing, but new research suggests we're actually after something else.

Experts at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business have just released one of the largest ever studies on mentorship and how it affects career performance. Of course, the hands-on experiences and learning opportunities play a huge role in a mentor's success or usefulness, but the biggest payoff for mentees comes from what's never actually spoken. While learning the ropes of a job and getting feedback matters, says corresponding author Brian Uzzi, "it's the unwritten knowledge we intuitively convey through our interactions and demonstrations with students that makes a real difference for mentees."

The researchers call this tacit knowledge, and mentors who convey it best can help their mentees be two to four times more successful than their peers, which Uzzi's team measured in scientists who produce published papers. Tacit knowledge can include management style, emotional intelligence, innovation, and communication skills. Once you've got a good idea of the kind of expert you'd like to learn from, figure out what you want from a mentoring relationship. Not all of them are created equal, but most of them can teach you something however you approach the process.