When you started out as a new lecturer, you were probably helped by a mentor, either within your own institution or from outside. This article explores the key skills required by mentors and shows you how to best support your mentees.
Who needs mentoring?
New members of staff joining a department are often formally mentored (especially if undertaking a probationary process). But almost anyone at any stage of their career can benefit from a mentor. In academia, your first formal mentor will be your PhD supervisor. But you also may have experienced peer mentoring systems, in which someone on a similar level of education or employment shares their experiences.
What makes a good mentor?
There are three distinct roles of mentorship. Practical assistance to help you achieve day to day tasks is incredibly important. To fulfil this, it is imperative that you have time for your mentee. The relationship won’t work if your mentee feels that you are bothered by their questions or that you don’t have time to spend with them. You should be able to support them when necessary.
A second aspect of a mentor’s role is to aid your mentee in personal development. How can they achieve promotion or develop particular skills that might aid their career? This overlaps somewhat with the line manager’s duties, but often a mentor will be more approachable.
A third aspect is to be a spokesperson for your mentee, to help them network and sell themselves using your contacts and experience. This type of mentoring is much more common in the private sector than in academia, but it still has a role to play, especially for early career mentees.
Boundaries: It is likely that you will become friends with your mentor too, and perhaps develop a close relationship with them. But, it is important to remember that while not in a formal position of trust, you are still bound to behave professionally. Never disclose anything that you discuss with your mentee with others unless you have been asked to do so. Honesty and trust are vital in this relationship.
Sometimes mentors and mentees do not get on. A relationship that looked perfect in theory may not work in practice because of the personalities of the two people concerned. The styles might not gel. As a manager, it is important to immediately act to solve this problem by reassigning mentor and mentee so that no one loses faith in the process itself.
Expectations: As a mentor spell out straight away what sort of mentor you will be, for example, how often you plan to meet, what advice you can provide. This is a way of managing expectations and starting the relationship in an open manner. No one will be misled into thinking that the mentoring relationship can provide something else.
Passive mentees: Encourage your mentee to be actively involved in the relationship, to articulate what they need and to work with them to achieve that. Encourage them to drive the relationship and not leave it up to the more ‘senior’ partner.
Time management: When agreeing to mentor other colleagues, consider how long this will take. Make sure that you allow your mentee enough time. Many relationships fail because of the unavailability of the mentor. It’s your responsibility to take this commitment seriously and allow the mentee time to get to know you and work with you.