How the Black Box of "Mentoring" Tricks Us Into Implementing Failing Strategies

Mentoring programs for students and young alumni are increasingly popular in the higher education community, but they're not turning out to be all that we hope they are. Mentoring programs promise to tap into the inactive parts of our alumni networks to help students and young alumni advance their careers and engage older alumni at the same time. This promise isn't being realized.

Johns Hopkins University is winding down its CASE Circle of Excellence award-winning Bridge 5 program, which paired incoming freshman with alumni mentors 5 years their senior. Other schools are having difficulty getting their mentoring programs off the ground. Some experts in higher ed are even questioning whether we should be implementing mentoring programs at all.

Thing is, we love the idea of mentoring, but we don't really talk about how it should work. And that's a problem. The problem.

Our assumption about mentoring programs goes something like this:

 Step 1: Mentoring | Step 2: ??? | Step 3: Profit

Step 1: Mentoring | Step 2: ??? | Step 3: Profit

Mentoring is a black box: You put a mentor and mentee in the box and then good things happen. Somehow. It's a hand-wavy placeholder we use to gloss over the vital intricacies of person-to-person interaction. But those details are what make mentoring work when it works and fail when it fails. 

The very word "mentoring" presupposes and guarantees a positive outcome: growth of the mentee. But that outcome isn't actually guaranteed. We don't know that our mentoring programs will get the results we want. So what we're really designing is a matchmaking program, not necessarily a mentoring program. A mentoring program is what we get when everything works correctly.

When we assume success is a given, like we do with mentoring, we don't do our best to design for it. We create sloppy programs. And because we don't question our definition of success, we misinterpret our results—whatever they are—to be positive outcomes. Fifty mentor-mentee pairs! Sounds great, right? But how many of those mentees actually benefitted from participating? Was it just wasted time?

More fundamentally, our assumptions often get in the way of asking ourselves the basic question: Do our constituents need this? As Ryan Catherwood, Assistant Vice President of Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University, writes, mentoring programs are often not well suited to what students and alumni need to advance their lives personally and professionally:

If our job is to teach people how to get hired, then mentor/mentee programs send the wrong message. Students and alumni must learn how to develop relationships to build a network that will provide referrals. Hiring managers rely on referrals to make decisions on candidates they’ve only met a few times for an hour or two. If nearly 80% of jobs are obtained through referrals, that must be our program’s focus.
The best advice for a mentee would be to go out and introduce themselves to people, starting with alumni in places they’d like to live and work. We don’t need to deploy resources towards formal structures to deliver that narrative. We need to teach students how to introduce themselves to the right people.

When we treat mentoring like a cure-all, we don't wind up curing anything.