Yesterday Professor Susan E. Murphy, an internationally-respected leadership expert at Edinburgh University, gave a talk about how researchers are grown. The balance between finding mentors and working with supervisors is a key challenge for researchers of all fields, from industry specialists like analysts, through think tank members and on to hard-core academics. Few analysts have the time to think about the context to their research because they are so focussed on their research. However, working with research directors is key to the success of the development of analysts and researchers.
That mentoring is often informal: Mentor himself aided Telemachus; many stories are told about the power of mentoring. Some mentors help people develop their approach; others develop mini-me protégés.
Are research directors supposed to be advisors, managers or mentors? Certainly the process develops both sides and creates value focussed on the very messy tasks that overlap in the job. But analysts also need to balance process with outcomes. It’s easy to be self-oriented and focus on one’s isolated development of insight, in a tightly-focussed specialist field. However, outcomes are the way in which insight is put to use. What matter is that the value of insight is useful for the audience. It’s important to have one’s ideas valued, but the paradox is that ideas in development are often only partly open to being challenged and developed.
Value, of course, comes from values. The approach and necessary hard work in the research methodology structures not only the process but also the outcomes. Not every analyst is following something like a scientific process, building upon the research of others. Critical thinking itself is a major value, and motivations certainly affect that.
If someone is more focussed on money, power, recognition, security, stability and winning then they can compromise on their integrity. Critical thinking can be subordinated to group-think and alignment to common sense in the community.
However, if a researcher is encouraged to focus on the creative contribution, and on meeting their goals, then both the quality and enjoyment of the work is improved.
So, it is important for researchers to understand the values they share with their mentors. Furthermore, senior analysts need to be achievement-oriented, and so a good relationship can be transformative. Guidance, critical support and honest feedback need to be tempered by offering insight into their future possibilities and hopes. Many professionals may be hesitant to offer feedback, and those who ask for it tend to do better.
However, outside of the research process there’s a lot of work for researcher directors to do. In addition to their research, they educate, consult, grow new researchers and network with clients and peers in other organisations. Often a major task is the discovery of research questions that others need the answers to.
But mentors also benefit, especially if they can pick researchers who are curious, resilient, hard-working, structured, disciplined, pro-active, collaborative and are good methodologists. Failing these, and we say this only half-jokingly, giving a good impression is also helpful. Often, they just want a good listener who does not shut down when under pressure. The ability to make time to focus, and consider more deeply than the shallowness of the internet encourages, is increasingly rare in junior researchers. More concretely, supervisors get a different perspective on the field, which enriches their work.
Organisations can measure mentoring, but few of the track how well that is working, or consider peer mentoring approaches. The experience of mentoring can also be uplifting: playing a trusted role of providing insight and motivation is often a relief from the daily grind of research. It also helps mentors to get an idea of the skills they need to develop, which the new
Carol Dweck’s work on mastery orientation is helpful on that. Many people want to focus on mastering their issue. In fact, mastery is an ongoing orientation of doing the best you can, rather than a goal one can put behind you. These relationships can be introduced formally, in a managed way, or informally, with more social exchange and identification of common benefits.