The benefits of mentoring are widely accepted. Gifting your experience and expertise to another can be both professionally rewarding and personally satisfying. But is there more to it than that?
Paul Gentle explores the powerful synergy that can evolve from this relationship and shares his personal story of what happened when he mentored a more junior colleague.
Right now, it seems that wherever I go in the universities I work with, everyone’s talking about mentoring.”
Right now, it seems that wherever I go in the universities I work with, everyone’s talking about mentoring.
Alumni desperately want opportunities to mentor students about to graduate. Peer mentors are training in record numbers to help new undergraduates make sense of their programmes. Professional services and academic staff are excited about the benefits of intergenerational mentoring.
So what’s the buzz, and why now?
My experience shows me how rewarding it can be to become a mentor, and to witness the changing workplaces which can result. My imagination gets carried away by just how vibrant a mentor-full university might be.
At a time when it’s crucial for universities to identify and develop their distinctiveness and excellence in learning and teaching, mentoring can unlock human potential in all kinds of directions.
I thought it was all about me sharing my expertise for the benefit of someone else. I had no idea what a limited view of mentoring this was.”
Mentoring is fundamental to academics learning their profession. In a piece of research which has become a cornerstone for understanding how leadership is perceived in academic cultures, Richard Bolden and colleagues (2012) found that informal mentoring approaches were key: this shows academic leaders taking ‘a pivotal role in one’s transition and acculturation in to academic life.’
Mentoring is also what can catalyse retention and progression for students who might otherwise be at risk of non-completion. Peer-assisted learning works to build students’ understanding of what their course demands of them, and for those who do the mentoring, it builds rich attributes that are invaluable in graduate employment.
When I had the chance to mentor a more junior colleague at work, I saw it as an opportunity to help. I envisaged a way of enabling someone to make a transition into a new job role. I thought it was all about me sharing my expertise for the benefit of someone else. I had no idea what a limited view of mentoring this was.
What had attracted me to mentoring in the first place? I was curious to know what it would feel like to work with a colleague I did not manage, from a different generation, on setting and then navigating through a challenge which was purely about personal and professional development. It had nothing to do with performance objectives. It was all about exploring what the mentee who had chosen me would find helpful to work on.
From our first conversation, she was a mentee who was open to challenge. She was hungry for learning, super-keen to understand how the organisation worked and how she might make a meaningful contribution that went beyond simply doing her job and working to her grade. Once this became clear to me, I understood how mentoring could work for both of us.
The process of supporting and challenging my mentee helped me to learn what was important to me about my role in the organisation.”
For me, becoming a mentor was a voyage of learning that was full of surprise and insight. The process of supporting and challenging my mentee helped me to learn what was important to me about my role in the organisation. What she taught me reinforced the enormous value in working relationships of compassion, empathy and building confidence. This enabled me to achieve more productive and fulfilling results in my day job.
The mentor-mentee relationship led to a collaborative action research project which was not an outcome that would have been possible to predict from our first exploratory meeting. By serendipity we discovered the mentee’s talent for writing, and this led to a joint publication in a refereed journal. Over the next two years, she made two further internal transitions into promotions where writing played an increasingly central part.
This was a marvellous lesson to me in how much opportunity there is for universities to become mentoring-rich institutions. The potential alignment between their role in promoting learning and how they encourage their staff to learn is obvious. It is a gift to those lucky enough to be mentors to be able to make a vital contribution to this.
It leads to renewed organisations.
And in our case, it led eventually to creating a brand-new organisation: one which is at one and the same time writing its own story and learning how to tell it!