Proteges Aren’t Vessels To Be Filled

Daniel Pink tweeted about a mentorship study conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University this week. While the study was conducted on scientists, I have to think the results apply even more truly for arts professionals because it finds the most successful proteges are those that chart a different path from their mentors.

Basically, the finding are that proteges whose mentors don’t push them to be mini-me clones of themselves (or proteges that don’t style themselves in that manner) are much more successful in the long run. This may seem like a foregone conclusion for arts disciplines which pride themselves on pushing boundaries. In my own career path, I have encountered mentors in acting, tech and administration who had a fairly narrow concept of the path they wanted proteges to follow. While I may be moving into old fogey-hood and that may not be as widespread, I get the sense that there are still people who demand a strict adherence to their guidance.

But new research from Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, shows that mentorship is indeed beneficial—especially when mentors pass down unwritten, intuitive forms of knowledge.


What’s more, “mini-mes” don’t necessarily thrive. Protégés are most successful when they work on different topics than their mentors.

For many of us, that’s a new way of thinking about mentorship. “People almost always think of the mentor as the really active element. The mentee is the passive element, absorbing the mentor’s knowledge,” Uzzi says. “Some of that’s true, but it turns out it’s really not a one-way arrow. It’s incumbent upon the mentee to branch out, take their mentor’s tacit knowledge, and do something that breaks new ground. The mentee has a big responsibility for their own success.”

The researchers were careful to study the mentor-protege relationships that existed before the mentor won a big prize. Obviously once someone receives great recognition, they will tend to attract the interest of many more highly skilled people from which they could chose proteges. In the study they compared proteges of pre-prize winners with those of people who didn’t receive a prize for their work.

In the short term, proteges of non-prize winners received more accolades, but in the long term, those that were mentored by future-prize winners had even greater success. The most successful proteges of all are those who worked with future prize winners and then went on to work in a different subject area from their mentor.

They attribute this arc to the fact that future prize winners need to do more basic work upon which to ground new progress so their proteges will receive recognition later in their careers. Proteges going in new directions from their mentors need additional time to succeed in charting their own path.

Of course, this whole dynamic mirrors the ideal parent-child relationship where the parent wants the child to exceed their achievements.

In addition, Uzzi expresses some concern that Covid-19 is inhibiting the transmission of the unwritten, intuitive knowledge. This is something to think about concerning the arts. It can be a good thing in that it potentially interrupts the transmission of practices we don’t want enshrined like limits on opportunities for under-represented people in all levels of performance, governance and decision making. Obviously it can be detrimental if people have to reinvent or rediscover knowledge that facilitates creation.

Uzzi and his coauthors believe that what’s being passed between future prizewinners and protégés is tacit knowledge. Mentees aren’t just learning concrete skills from their mentors. They’re also picking up how their mentors come up with research questions, how they brainstorm, how they interact with collaborators, and so on—knowledge that is difficult to codify and often learned by doing.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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