So You Have a Mentor…Now What?

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

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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9 Responses to So You Have a Mentor…Now What?

  1. I have tried mentors in the past, and have even been assigned them through different conferences or professional development seminars I’ve attended. However, I would have to say that my best experience with a mentor is one I met through Twitter. I really can’t even remember how it happened at this point, not such a good thing, BUT I am completely thankful that it did. @LaurieABerry has been amazing to work with over the past 4 years. We have not always been able to catch up and chat on a normal basis, but she’s been there in times I really needed direction, guidance, and just someone to bounce information off of. I of course am so thankful to the numerous people I’ve been able to connect with through the #sachat community too.
    I think at this point in time I may look for a sponsor, as it might be a good addition in my professional network. I know I need to work on strengthening my network and doing more to give back to those who have helped me. I don’t think I’ve lacked in this area, but I see it as an area to improve on. Thanks for the information Ann Marie.

  2. annerstark says:

    This post reinforced my current plan of development. To highlight three points on my development plan; 1. Identify my board of directors, 2. Create and write down my personal sponsorship filter (what must a person have for me to invest my time and energy into their development) and 3. Invest in the next generation (I have a small list of younger women I am watching via social media who I think could be real up and comers!)

    This post is a much needed shift in direction for the current mentor-ship conversation. The next step I would like see is what it means to be an effective sponsor in the day to day? What does that look like? How do be a top notch sponsor? What skills do you need to develop to be a good sponsor? How do you over come the urge/need/pressure to help everyone (develop a filter)? and so on.

  3. Pingback: Redefining the experience of Women in Technology | AnneRStark

  4. Joe Gutowski (@j_gutowski) says:

    IMO, there is a temptation for new/young professionals to use the word “mentor” to identify any seasoned professional that they look up to, get advice from, etc. without truly defining the purpose of the relationship. Mentoring relationships do evolve in a number of different ways — My strongest mentee relationship and I joke that we never truly defined what our relationship actually is or supposed to be but inherently over the last four years, we’ve been able to execute points 2,3 and 4 that you spoke of.

    And Point 6 is extremely well-taken and should be by all — we don’t have to go up to every young professional we work with and tell them that we’ll mentor them, but we all have a right and responsibility to our profession to present and conduct ourselves in a way that will allow us to be more approachable (and approach others easier) to grow the field of higher education.

    Now that I’ve been in a Director-level position for 8 months, I need to be more intentional about seeking mentors/sponsors and likely adding to my Board of Directors, so this was a good reminder that mentoring/sponsoring is important at all stages of your career. As I consider tangible goals for the coming year, this definitely makes it on to the list.

    As always, thanks for your posts, AMK! They’re always good food for thought… and always appreciated.

  5. Joe, I totally agree about the evolution of mentoring relationships–it’s totally natural for that to happen. As we start a new academic year I think it’s important to create strong supports and encourage folks to start the process of building their own network of advisers. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

  6. Thank you for this post as it could not have come at a better time AMK! I recently had to let go of a mentor because it was only a one way street. Meaning I was the only one reaching out for advice and guidance or even just to check in to see how this person was doing in general. It still hurts, but I have been fortunate to gain a few more mentors and sponsors along the way. =)

  7. Mara Zepeda says:

    Really thoughtful insights, Ann Marie. I co-founded a company called Switchboard that tries to do just this: make connections between “askers” and “offerers.” One thing we’ve learned at Reed College, where our beta launched, is the value of peer mentorship. If a current senior is looking to get into radio, they are more likely to receive better advice from a peer who graduated five years prior and is early in his radio career, and has recently been through the steps necessary to establish it (internships, conferences, networking, etc.). This saves the older and more experienced professionals for the role of sponsor once the “seeker” has a foothold and has demonstrated proficiency and dedication. But what happens more often than not is established mentors, 20 years into their careers, speak to students at career fairs, etc. about their experience that, in this day and age, bears very little resemblance to what a new grad today faces. However these older sponsors are instrumental once the seeker has shown the door from someone who more recently went through it. Remarkably, graduates 5 – 10 years out are more likely to post an “offer” than an “ask,” which means this culture of generosity and mentorship has taken hold. Looking forward to reading more!

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