As the higher education sector is fast evolving, universities recognise that fostering the skills of their academics and professional staff is more important than ever. Whilst universities compete on a global scale to attract talented students, they also aspire to attract and keep talented academics, researchers, lecturers and managers. In the following article, I have cherry-picked some of the joys and pitfalls of mentoring which I have experienced within the higher education sector.
Mentoring is a form of professional development which enables individuals to improve their skills and further their careers. It is an ancient craft. The first recorded use of the word ‘mentor’ dates back to Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.
The Oxford English Dictionary explains that a mentor is ‘an experienced or trusted adviser’. In reality, however, a mentor may wear many of the proverbial ‘hats’ from being a sounding board, a role model, a motivator and a coach, to being an expert adviser.
If you have successfully taken part in mentoring before (whether as a mentor or a mentee), you probably agree that mentoring is a powerful tool to foster skills and talent.
Finding solutions – mentoring creates an environment to explore challenges and to brainstorm solutions. Successful mentoring does not have to be complicated. When you provide an emotionally safe environment to an individual, allow them to think out loud, listen to them without judgments and share relevant pearls of wisdom, a mentee can make leaps of progress. Although it may sound simple, it is definitely not easy (as you will see below under pitfalls).
Accountability – a study conducted by The American Society of Training and Development highlighted that when you commit to another person, you are 65 percent likely to reach your goal. Accountability can be particularly important when sharing your aims with a more senior staff member. Out of respect, you will be far less likely to falter on your commitments. And who knows, your senior mentor may be able to connect you with others to help your goal materialise.
Learn mentoring skills –mentoring can help you not only to better navigate the turbulent landscape of your work environment but you can also pick up invaluable mentoring skills. A colleague, who has worked for years as an academic manager, recently told me how much she benefited from being mentored by a senior departmental manager. Whilst working with a talented and experienced mentor, she learnt invaluable mentoring skills. She is able to take up mentoring now and help nurture potential high fliers within the university.
Telling versus asking – as a result of the rapid growth of mentoring, many managers and academics have been selected for mentoring roles without sufficient training. Mentors mistakenly assume that mentoring is simply giving direct advice based on their previous experience and their perspectives. Their approach becomes a way of telling. Mentors may believe that they have the one right answer to the challenge the mentee brings to the meetings. The telling approach may contribute to friction between the mentor and the mentee, lack of commitment to change and fading motivation.
Skilled mentors excel at combining telling with asking. They listen deeply to understand the mentee’s situation. Instead of trying to force a one-size-fits-all approach (their solution), they ask insightful questions to help the mentee find their best solution. They happily brainstorm solutions with the mentee and do not shy away from sharing insights from their own professional practice.
Muddy expectations – even the best mentoring efforts can go pear shaped if expectations are not laid down carefully at the start. It is a bit like starting to build a house without a solid foundation. If you do not establish solid ground rules, the mentoring relationship is likely to fold in the future. Think about discussing the expected length of the mentoring process. Explore how often and when you will meet, and what to do if having to rearrange times. Reflect on the goal(s) you want to achieve whist working together. Most importantly, reassure the mentee about confidentiality.
Lack of commitment – mentoring works because both mentor and mentee make a commitment to the process. Mentors can initiate introductions for the mentee, make them aware of possible job openings within the organisation, arrange for them to be involved in key projects and share with them resources. You might be surprised to hear that mentors need to prepare for the meetings and review their mentoring notes periodically. Mentees can show commitment by taking action between the meetings based on what have been agreed in the conversations. They need to think about what topic they would like to bring to the mentoring conversations. The more effort the mentor and mentee put into mentoring, the more they get out.
Mentoring, with all its joys and pitfalls, is a powerful development tool. Universities, as learning institutes, need to open their doors more to foster not only the learning of their students but of their researchers, academics, managers and academic support staff. Fostering a culture of mentoring can help universities to stand out and thrive.