In this blog, Loujaine AlMoallim (MBA 2024) interviews HBS Professor Ting Zhang about her personal journey, her time at HBS, and her advice for HBS leaders.

Can you briefly tell us about your journey that got you to where you are today?

It takes a village to raise an academic, and that is especially true as the first in my family to go to grad school. The biggest influence in my life has been my parents. Throughout my childhood, my parents worked multiple jobs to give me the educational opportunities I had—that’s a big reason I love and value school. Becoming a business professor was never on my radar until I ventured onto HBS campus one day to attend an info session for what I thought was for getting an MBA, and instead turned out to be about doctoral programs in business schools. Becoming a faculty member is a long and winding process (with a lot of soul searching and years spent collecting data and writing papers), and I simply could not have gotten through the process without the support of my family and the many grad students and faculty who supported me along the way. I’m in this field and study mentorship because I would not be here if not for these incredible people in my life.

How has your teaching experience been at HBS so far? What do you like most about the case method and classroom experience?

The classroom is simply magical. I love its energy. I love how our discussions push me to be a better thinker and person. I walk away from each conversation thinking more deeply and learning something new. In a world filled with distractions that compete for our attention, the classroom is a special place that cultivates an increasingly rare skill: the ability to listen and learn from one another.

Your research focuses on examining organizations’ development of individuals through advising and mentoring. Could you give us a summary of how you’ve seen organizations do that and why do you think it is important?

When I talk to people in different industries and organizations, people agree on the importance of mentorship. However, if you look at how people spend their time, there is huge variability in terms of how much people prioritize mentoring activities. Some people see mentoring others as an obligation (that is, just another activity that HR wants employees to do), whereas others see it as an opportunity. We find in our research that a key difference has to do with mentors’ approach to their own learning. When mentors are open to learning from those they could mentor, they are more engaged and willing to carve out time for it.

Effective mentoring not only requires a willingness, but also an ability to mentor others. Another problem I study is how some mentors often battle the curse of expertise—that is their very expertise makes it harder for them to relate what novices are thinking and feeling, making advising and teaching others more difficult. Part of my research seeks to unlock how rediscovering a beginner’s mind can help mentors become better attuned to what their novice mentees are thinking. Whether it’s an expert guitarist playing with their nondominant hand or a surgeon re-reading old reflections about their first surgery, these activities that take experts back to their novice state can be critical to helping them reconnect with novices and enable them to become better mentors.

What recommendations would you give current and future HBS leaders when it comes to advising and mentoring in their position?

Perhaps the biggest take away is for leaders to not assume that the ability to develop other people (whether through mentoring, coaching, or sponsoring) is something that organically develops. Rather, it needs to be cultivated. When we work with organizational partners, all of them are enthused about creating programs aimed to help new employees seek out mentorship, but fewer are open to the idea of training leaders to become better mentors, sponsors, and coaches. If organizations are serious about retaining and promoting new diverse talent, they have to think more deliberately about how to equip their leaders with the skills to develop others, and not assume that these skills will naturally grow on their own.

Throughout your journey, what is the greatest lesson that you believe you learned and what is one piece of advice you would give people reading this?

One of the key lessons I’ve learned is captured in a poem by Antonio Machado: “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” It means, “Walker, there is no path, you make the path as you go.” I’ve personally found it quite liberating. It’s okay to not know the exact path you will take, and part of the beauty in the journey is figuring it all out as you go.

Loujaine AlMoallim (MBA 2024) is a Saudi Arabian student who spent most of her formative years in Canada. After completing her undergraduate degree at McGill University majoring in International Management, she moved back to Saudi Arabia and worked in Consulting. She enjoys traveling and exploring new places, hosting people over for small gatherings, and baking and decorating cakes.

Ting Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, where she teaches the Leadership and Organizational Behavior course (LEAD) in the Required Curriculum.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 edition of the Harbus.