Exploring the Mentoring Triad

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

When most people think of the idea of mentoring, they usually think of a dyad working together: a more senior mentor and a more junior protégé. This formulation of the mentoring relationship is the most widely used and studied, but there is growing interest in other forms of mentoring. There is the concept of the “mentor network,” which envisions one protégé consulting with multiple mentors to gather different perspectives. You might also have heard about “reverse mentoring,” which is where the junior “mentor” teaches the more senior “protégé” about trends, technology, and the junior’s generation. While these two forms of mentoring offer a different take on the traditional formulation, they are still based on the one-to-one approach to the relationship. Even the network of mentors is a series of one-to-one relationships, with the protégé sitting at the node, with no interaction among the mentors.

Some organizations are looking at a new mentoring dynamic: triadic mentoring. In a mentoring triad, one mentor works with two complementary protégés concurrently. When meeting, the three parties all meet together, and time is devoted to both protégés’ needs. Organizations often look to triadic mentoring to solve a supply and demand issue; more demand for mentors than available supply of good mentors. I have worked with several professional associations facing this very issue. Like many professional associations, the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association of St. Louis found themselves with more juniors actively participating in their organization (and seeking mentors) than seniors who could mentor them. In order to serve more members who were seeking mentors, the program steering committee and I devised a triadic mentoring approach, assigning two protégés to each mentor.

Pros and Cons. Triadic mentoring has many of the benefits of traditional mentoring, but does not necessarily replicate its advantages. There are pros and cons to the design:

  • Pros
    • Scarce resource. Using a triad helps more individuals benefit from the scarce resource that is a mentor. If an organization has a limited number of available mentors, triads can serve double the number of protégés.
    • “Junior mentor.” Having another protégé at the discussion has been described by participants in our programs as a “junior mentor,” someone with another perspective who can add to the richness of the dialogue.
    • Network connection. One of the benefits of mentoring is access to a broader network through the mentor. A second protégé brings the potential of even more network connections.
    • Synergy. When protégés have complementary needs, they can achieve some level of synergy between them, feeding off each others’ ideas and energy.
  • Cons
    • Scheduling. Aligning three schedules is a lot harder than aligning two. The responsibility for managing the meeting schedule needs to be shared between the protégés.
    • Competition. Since the two protégés are sharing one mentor’s time, one protégé may soak up more of the mentor’s time if the clock isn’t managed well, leading to resentment by the other.
    • Burden on mentor. While the goal of triads is to serve more protégés with the same number of mentors, some mentors feel that they have to devote more time to their protégés (either through longer meetings or by meeting separately) to be effective.
    • Lower intimacy. The connection formed between participants in a triad are often not as strong as those formed in a dyad. Many of the more difficult issues protégés need to explore need the more intimate trust that exists in a dyadic relationship.

Elements of success. If your organization is considering adopting a triadic mentoring design, consider the following recommendations to increase the likelihood of success:

  • Complementary needs. In dyadic mentoring, we try to match protégé needs to the mentor’s strengths. In triads, we first must try to match the two protégés together so that their needs are similar enough to achieve the synergy described above. If the needs are too dissimilar, the protégés will not get as much benefit meeting together. The needs on which to match are both the goals each protégé has as well as similar stage in career.
  • Coordinated scheduling. The protégés will have two manage three calendars for their meeting schedule. When matching the triads, use additional information to make the scheduling easier. Consider geography (where do each of the parties work and live) as well as better/worse times of day for meetings.
  • Ground rules. The members of the triad need to establish ground rules for how they are going to work together so that both protégés feel like they are getting fair access to the mentor and the mentor doesn’t feel overburdened. Ground rules can be set around governing air time during meetings, trading off who gets to go first in meetings, and what to do if one protégé cannot make a scheduled meeting.
  • Self-discipline. While dyadic mentoring can be “all about me” for the protégé, those in triads need to be able to curb themselves and yield to the other protégé and mentor. Protégés need to be able to sense when they are exceeding their allotted time during a meeting without putting the burden on the mentor or co-protégé to stop them every time.