Building a Mentor Network

“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel son, not mine.” As a child of the 80s Mr. Miyagi of the Karate Kid movies offered wisdom for us all. Through his training of Daniel, we adapted the tough lessons of hard work, virtue, and discipline, the essentials for successfully pursuing our life goals. The mentor/student dynamic between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel remains to be one of the quintessential models of such a relationship. A mentorship relationship is one in which a person guides, teaches, guards, coaches, advises another person in order to build knowledge and confidence. These relationships are most successful when trust and respect serve as the foundation. As a junior faculty on the track to tenure, having mentorship is critical in navigating the teaching, research, and service expectations, not to mention a balanced work/life scenario. Unfortunately, a Mr. Miyagi type of mentor that works with you day in and day out doesn’t exist in real life.

Throughout my career, the mentorship relationships have shifted as I moved from being a young designer, to an art director, to an educator, and researcher. Mentorship in industry was aligned with a corporate or studio vision and focused on products being designed. There was a structured framework for process and a hierarchy of roles, making the knowledge shared by my mentors pretty cut and dry. Things such as how to manage clients and co-workers, how to work efficiently and prioritize, what to say or not say in certain meetings, background information about workplace history, and motivation for designing the best (fill in the blank with product here) are examples of common lessons given to me as young designer. My mentors helped mold me into the next level of responsibility and to be the best creative team-player I could be.

In academia, it gets a lot messier and the need for multiple mentors is a must. Typically, formal mentors are assigned to junior faculty and they provide guidance in the departmental tenure requirements. These mentors help, however, the feelings of getting lost while navigating this process is very real and very overwhelming for junior faculty. Support, guidance, and wisdom are needed nearly 24/7 in order to feel reassured I’m moving in the right direction. Fortunately, I have been successful at identifying a network of go-to mentors who I frequently rely on. I don’t utilize them in typical ways but rather through methods that have helped guide me in this journey.

Channel a former mentor. This may be someone you used to work with on a regular basis. After years of interacting with these mentors you become aware of their reactions in specific moments. Have them be the voice inside your head, ask yourself “what would (insert mentor name here) do?” or “what would (insert mentor name here) say about this?”.  Also, it’s been my experience that once someone is a mentor, they are happy to always be a mentor — don’t be afraid to reach out for advice.

Trust your instincts. As junior faculty I have received a lot of advice from many of my senior colleagues. Sometimes this knowledge conflicts with what I’ve heard or learned from someone else. Know what information to take from certain people and make sure it’s applied in a way that ultimately supports you and your career. Also, considering the source and their experiences is helpful too.

Keep a list. Write down words of wisdom as you hear them, or at least repeat it to yourself. These thoughts will resurface when you or someone else might need them.

Study leaders. Watch how leaders manage, motivate, and challenge others. Determine if that is the type of leader you might want to be and study their approach, then practice it yourself.

Find the devil’s advocate. We learn the most from those that challenge us by playing the devil’s advocate. Although it’s necessary to go into these situations with an open mind and be willing to take their criticism.

Look for a mirror. The best mentors are ones that are able to mirror your accomplishments and show a true reflection of you back to yourself. We are often our toughest critic and mentors can provide a more positive outlook and highlight our best qualities.

Lean on your peers. Swapping experiences with peers can offer other ways of approaching a problem from sticky student situations to writing a project brief to finding the next venue opportunity for a research endeavor.

Observe others teaching. I’ve learned the most from observing my fellow colleagues interacting with students. This indirect approach offers insight into teaching methods that we hadn’t thought to test out and provides the confidence needed to do so on our own.

Consult others outside of design. As a design academic with a research agenda, I’m constantly participating in dialog outside of the design discipline. Advice given from outside of art and design can offer new avenues for dissemination and broaden our trajectories.

Practice awareness. Being aware of how your mentors have contributed to your progress allows you to contribute to the progress of others. Eventually, everything will come full circle.

The need for multiples mentors is necessary in our constantly flexing responsibilities and interrelationships with peers and students. Mentors can be unexpected and informal as well as formally assigned to us, it’s beneficial to diversify our mentor networks and development methods for using the knowledge they share with us. Our success is greatly determined by who we surround ourselves with, be selective with people and the methods that will make you a better teacher, research, and mentor.

Rebecca Tegtmeyer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.


By Rebecca Tegtmeyer
Published May 25, 2016
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