We talk a lot about mentorship in higher education but it almost always focuses on 1) why you should have a mentor, 2) how to find one or 3) the research that indicates mentorship has strong professional and personal benefits.
What we spend less time discussing is how to foster and sustain that relationship once it is established.
What if we focused more about how to BE a mentor and (equally important) a mentee?
A few things to consider…
1) What Do You Want from this Person? Guidance? Support? Advice? A (not so gentle) professional nudge? When I think about people who have felt disappointed with their mentor(s) it has been because they didn’t establish what they wanted from the person. They are mentors, not mind-readers. It’s important to state exactly what you are hoping to gain from the relationship.
A newly established mentee said to me this week “I want you to be my mentor because you will push me like no one else will.” So I asked a few clarifying questions like in what ways did he want me to push him? What are his immediate goals and how can I support and assist him in attaining those?
We know the importance of institutional fit and those same rules apply for selecting a mentor. There needs to be a shared investment in the relationship and an appreciation of what each person brings to the table. You can seek out a well-known Higher Education practitioner or professor to be your mentor but if the only thing that attracts you is their prestige then you will be sorely disappointed. Select mentor(s) who have the time, energy and investment in the relationship.
2) Mentorship is Great but Sponsorship is Better: Much of the recent buzz on this topic indicates that mentorship provides good support but sponsorship really helps you to thrive.
So what’s the difference? A mentor tells you, “you should consider going through that door” and a sponsor will push the door open and nudge you through. They advocate for you when you are not in the room. In short, sponsors are invested in your own success in deeply personal ways. Are you looking for a mentor or a sponsor? Clarify your goals before making the ask.
3) Look for Ways to Establish a Two-Way Mentoring Street: So while I am happy to invest in the mentee I mentioned previously he recently said to me “You know, I could really help you re-organize and re-design your blog page.” He has skills that I do not possess and so by offering to help me we are establishing a relationship where we each benefit from the talents of each other. This give and take is the new way to look at mentorship and it is one that is sustainable and a total win-win for everyone involved.
4) Define How Your Relationship will Operate: Perhaps it is more organic, i.e., “I’ll call you when I need you” or maybe you need more structured time like a monthly phone check-in. There is no right or wrong way but it is important to clarify expectations from the start.
5) Create a Personal Board of Directors: No one person can give you everything you need. Diversify your group of trusted advisors based on the different areas of your professional portfolio. These can be folks at your experience level, above or below. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they have expertise in an area you want to grow in. Having a team approach allows you to gain multiple perspectives and find folks who have particular areas of strength.
@EdCabellon calls me when he wants to bounce ideas about the doctoral research process and in turn I call him when I need assistance in the area of social media and technology. I look to @VijayPendakur when I am seeking insight on issues of diversity and justice and I have @CissyPetty, @TBump and @JPKirchmeier on speed dial when I need career advancement advice. When I need someone to keep it real I look to @DSchmidtRogers. When I am looking for ways to impact the entry-level experience I have no shame in asking superstars like @RayTennison, @RachAho and @Dav_Velaz to help me. Who can support you in all of the areas of your professional life? What do you have to offer them in return?
6) Pay It Forward: Most people went into higher education at the encouragement of a mentor, advisor, supervisor, etc. People are retained in this field because they have created a strong network of colleagues and allies. Continue to give back the mentorship, sponsorship and support and our field (and in turn our students) win every time. Be generous with your time. You never know much a phone conversation, email exchange or in-person conversation can provide someone with exactly what they need.
What are your thoughts about mentorship in higher education? How can we do better at this?
Follow me on Twitter @annmarieklotz