Koch Associate Program

The value in finding a mentor

No one can get through life alone – especially work life – which is why mentors and advisers play a central role in the Koch Associate Program, the Koch Internship Program, and the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship.

October 12, 2020

Nine in 10 workers who have a career mentor are happy in their jobs, while 4 in 10 workers without a mentor recently considered quitting, according to a 2019 CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness survey.

In other words: Mentors matter.

No one can get through life alone – especially work life – which is why mentors and advisers play a central role in the Koch Associate Program (KAP), the Koch Internship Program (KIP), and the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship (MJF), which pairs journalism students with nationally-recognized print, radio, and television reporters. These individuals provide feedback on projects, push participants to learn more about their passions and skills, and identify resources that can help interns and associates be more successful. Mentors and mentees meet one-on-one at least once every week or two and touch base more frequently via email or text.

I talked to some of our mentors and advisers about this central component of MJF, KIP and KAP, and why it is so important.

Trevon Hauth, KAP and KIP Mentor and Stand Together Program Manager

What is the role of a mentor?

Mentors listen and help to solve problems, of course, but they also can – and should – do more. A good mentor will challenge their advisees to think more broadly, and longer-term. Ideally, the mentor should be a guide on the path to self-actualization, which means helping to take the blinders off and to identify what is holding back a person. Necessarily, that means the advisor-advisee relationship will not always be easy. If mentors want to help their charges find fulfillment in their work – and not just the next job – they must ask probing and, yes, difficult questions.

How do you help your mentees on the path to self-actualization?

I keep asking questions to get past surface answers. Let’s say someone says, “I’m bored.” I want to know why. Of course an entry level job is not always going to be stimulating, but I try to figure out the other factors at play. The real reason behind the dissatisfaction could be that the mentee never wanted to work in their current field. Or that their unique skills just aren’t suited for their job, or it could even be that this person knows a certain task could be completed in a better way and simply does not know how to express that to their boss.

The questions that a mentor will ask will help the advisee understand the true nature of the problem and hopefully lead to a solution.

How would you help someone who clearly is not satisfied in their job but thinks switching careers would disappoint their family?

This is somewhat common. We know that approval, money, and accolades are not a sure way to self-fulfillment, but sometimes diverting to another path simply feels risky, particularly when an individual lacks familial support. In that case, I would try to help my mentee think creatively and to find opportunities outside of their full-time job to develop their passions and skills. Volunteering is a great place to start.

Why do you think some people are happy in their jobs and others are not?

Populace Co-Founder and President Todd Rose has examined what successful people have in common. When he started researching his book Dark Horse, he apparently thought he would find that each of his subjects had a certain personality trait in common. He thought, for example, that maybe they were all just more willing to buck “the system.” His hypothesis was wrong. The one thing all of Rose’s subjects mentioned? How passionate about their work they were – how fulfilling they found it.

I think we’re all happier when we’ve found our purpose, and as a KAP mentor that’s what I try to help my advisees find.

Does having a mentor automatically equal happiness? What does a mentee have to do to make this relationship work?

A mentor should be able to call out their mentee if they are not digging deep enough – after all, the goal is to help them think about the world and themselves differently. This requires trust and some vulnerability on the mentee’s part. They need to be able to let go a bit and realize the mentor is there to help – but not do the work.

What does self-actualization mean?

First, it’s not a destination but a journey to become your best self. The paradox there is that means your own self-actualization will evolve as you change and as the world changes. Once you start on the journey, you’ll learn more about yourself, your passions, and aptitudes and will find more ways to meaningfully contribute. The evolution keeps going from there.

Young people today are facing a tough economy. How can having a mentor help them navigate this uncertainty?

Having a mentor will help people create opportunities for themselves. I don’t think young people are going to have the luxury that adults entering the workforce did just a few years ago in trying out a job to see if it is a “fit.” They are going to need to go into the workforce understanding what will work for them. A mentor can help with that.

Why is the mentor relationship so important within KIP and KAP?

The mentor relationship creates a space where participants can take things from theory and start to wrestle with how they can start to put them into practice.

Dan Lothian, MJF Mentor, former CNN White House correspondent and founder, Little Park Media

What is the role of a mentor?

There is no real blueprint. It is different in some ways depending on who the mentee is, but in broad strokes, the role of a mentor is to be a sounding board. It is to be someone who can offer guidance from years of experience and not only about the things that are in front of the mentee at the time. I often will provide feedback on a story, an interview, or a video, but there always is an element of life to the mentor-mentee relationship. How do you help the mentee understand challenges around life and work? How do you deal with being at work all the time? How do you build a relationship when you’re always on call? Helping mentees work through that whole difficult issue of work-life balance is a key part of the mentor role.

Why is the mentor relationship so important within MJF?

I’ve done pretty much everything in the newsroom because you have to learn how every beat operates, but I really bloomed when I was doing something that I was very passionate about. So what I try to ask mentees is, “What are the things that you like? Do you want to cover the environment, for example?” And then I ask what they have done to pursue that interest. When they start projects they think they are really excited about, we ask how it felt, how it worked out, and if the project pushed them to want to do more of that kind of thing. Those kinds of conversations can help mentees define their passions.

What shifts have you seen in your mentees?

When I got into journalism, there was no question what it was that you wanted to do once you started going, whether it was print or radio. What you’re seeing now are less concrete strategies for careers. There is a lot of exploration that takes place now. Mentees might have an interest in a particular area but are also open to other things. Those are some of the conversations I’ve had. Do you stick with what you’re doing and take a more measured approach to growth, or do you do something different, where you might get more money up front? But it’s less certain in the long run. We talk all of the options through and help the individual make a decision for themselves.

Do you stay in touch with your mentees?

I’m always saying, “I’m here for life.” Sometimes the relationship drifts, but I always encourage them to reach out to me from time to time. I leave the door open. I always try to be someone’s sounding board or even a reference.

Did you have a mentor? What did she/he mean to you?

The very first job I had was in radio when I was 16. My dad had a radio background, and I would hang out. The boss, the guy who owned the radio station, said, “Maybe you should teach Dan how to do the work.” So I worked the overnight shift at that AM/FM radio station.

That big job for a little kid gave me experience for my resume even before I got to college. So when I was in college I was able to get various jobs at radio stations. Then along the way, whenever I had questions about programming or breaking into the news side of things, I would reach out to him. He was sort of the guiding light throughout my career. He passed away at 93, and I spoke at his memorial service.

We always think of mentorship as someone to help you through the next job, which is important. But I don’t think a lot of people realize that you can be an important force in guiding someone toward a career – exposing them to something they may not even be aware of, or for which they have the skills. Just having confidence and faith in someone is a huge amount of impetus for their in life in general.

How can having a mentor help you be happy in your job?

Having someone external to your company is great because they help you look at the big picture. I think it’s important to have someone within the place you’re working too because that person understands the dynamics of that particular workplace. Work is never a happy place every day, but if you feel like someone has your back, it’s an easier place, a much more enjoyable place. I always have had someone to keep me grounded or to give me inside information or feedback. Without that person, I don’t know that I would have ended up where I ended up.