at the heart of good mentoring is good matching

Happy National Mentoring Day! #mentoringrocks #nationalmentoringday #fortheloveofmentoring

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I always think of, and describe my work designing and consulting on academic mentoring programmes as ‘connecting people together to talk about the things that really matter to them’. This is what I hold as the core of what I do. I make professional connections for a living, and to me, it’s important to get it right. The personalised one-to-one connection, is at the centre of each programme I work on. What that requires of me is to be able to make good mentoring match for each person (about 250 pairs per year). As you can imagine that takes some time. It’s probably the most time intensive thing I do, as anyone who’s come across my 4-times-a-year Twitter ‘matching countdowns’ will verify.

In practice sharing networks I contribute to, a common topic is how to do mentee-mentor matching. I often feel deflated though, because when I share how I get results, I receive in reply “but isn’t there a faster way?” Or “how can we make matching take as little time as possible?” I get it, and empathise, I know you’re busy. But I love matching. It’s a hugely satisfying part of my job, and it brings good results:

“Hi Kay, I just wanted to pass something on now, in case I forget at the end! It was how much I value the effort you have gone into (and the work it must have taken) to match mentees and mentors. In my view it has been critical in the success of the scheme.”

“I have recently met with my thesis mentor. I feel we have been perfectly matched and the meeting was both productive and beneficial”

“I am very grateful to the University for providing this mentoring programme and for being matched perfectly with my mentor. It helped me focus on career goals and identify clearly my own personal priorities for the future. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with Dr F, who is an excellent mentor.”

I wanted to take some time to consider the factors and the tensions in matching. Whether there is a ‘best practice’ in matching is in the eye of each time-poor programme manager, so let’s just say there is a set of ‘good practices’ in matching that can be considered and pieced together as required by each person and each programme. But first,

What does matching do? Fundamentally, it gives a mentee permission to contact someone they don’t know (likely someone they don’t even know exists) and ask them for something.

Add to that what a good matching process can do, it can align objectives, reassure both parties, ease that first introduction, and support the relationship to get off to a great start.

Pre-consideration: Do you even need a matching process? This will depend on how likely spontaneous mentoring is to get off the ground without any brokering/facilitating — could you just say to people at induction “Look sharp folks, the university expects you to find yourself a mentor.” Would the same people ever meet if you didn’t introduce them? Would they feel they had the permission or encouragement to talk about career development to a stranger? And the confidence to communicate their development needs, and set parameters for the mentoring partnership? If so let them go for it.

But if the answer to all this is ’NO’, they’ll benefit from a professional Nosey Parker (self-titled) like me who makes it their business to understand what people want and need from their mentors.

A few example matching methods and the questions about them that spring to my mind:

1. Mentees self select a mentor from a list/brochure/web page: I use an online platform of this nature for v i s t a mentoring. This perhaps seems like the ‘low admin’ choice and allows people to browse remotely, on demand, and in their own time, but…

  • Who collates them into a web page/booklet/platform and how do you ensure the profiles of potentially hundreds of people are kept updated?
  • How do you prompt mentees into action to make contact with a mentor?
  • If mentees know who is available, what’s to stop them bypassing your programme and making a direct approach? Will mentors hold you responsible if they get overloaded with such requests?
  • For programmes with ad hoc start dates, how do you find out and record who is matched with whom, and who is still available?
  • How do you ensure confidentiality for your mentors? Would mentors be more or less likely to sign up if their names and profiles are published? Would public visibility limit the openness of the profiles e.g. for the question ‘Have you experienced/overcome any barriers or obstacles to your career pogress’?
  • Do you have a celebrity mentor? i.e. a person who has been on TV, has scored a prestigious funding award, who has a high profile locally? People will choose them in preference and…
  • If several mentees choose the same mentor, will you begin a programme by disappointing most of them? How will you manage 2nd and 3rd choices to get the best for every mentee?
  • What about ‘never selected’ mentors? Unconscious bias, or a poor understanding of the mentor’s experience/skills can lead to great mentors being overlooked. How do you distribute the workload fairly across the mentor pool?
  • How do you guide mentees to reflect on and articulate their ideal mentor before choosing?

2. Mentees and mentors pair up at an event e.g. speed dating, or a training/induction workshop. This is good because it capitalises on real rapport between the partners. It can also create a lively atmosphere, great for launching the programme with energy. But…

  • Does it disadvantage more introverted types or participants with social anxiety? Would participants avoid the programme if speed dating, or networking, were a component?
  • Do participants make authentic connections when faced with the pressure of performing the best version of ourselves in order to be approved of and chosen?
  • What do you do if there are participants (mentors and mentees) who are not chosen. Are there groups of people less likely to be selected e.g. because of unconscious bias, or ability to perform in an extroverted way?
  • Confidentiality would be hard to maintain. Would your programme include participants who were there confidentially? How would you ensure their supervisor/PI/Head of Department wasn’t in the room (e.g. as a mentor)? Would mentees feel OK with disclosing their learning objectives to every mentor in the room?
  • At the end of the programme will you retain your mentors for next time? This method requires mentors to come back ‘in the room’ each time you run the programme — do you want them to use their time for this? How frequently would that be?
  • Will you need a travel budget if your mentees and mentors are in multiple locations?

3. Application/Matching Form and a matching process done by the programme leader. This allows for matching that combines the mentee and mentor’s ‘wish lists’ with any background knowledge you have about them as individuals. It means you can take your time to consider each person. It also helps keeps things confidential. However, this method gives participants fairly low control over their match and so you’ll have to reassure then and show them you can be trusted to pick on their behalf. So…

  • Filling in a matching profile is a form of reflective writing. How can you design your ‘questions’ to help mentees to articulate their mentoring goals, and mentors to describe their mentoring expertise rather than just their academic CV.
  • How will you manage selections long-term and balance the workload across the mentor pool?
  • Have you got time for the workload? As a guide I can match 5-6 mentees an hour. I can’t do a whole programme of 75 matches without breaking it up over several days as I get ‘match fatigue’.
  • Do you know all your mentors personally? Can you recruit is some local matching champions e.g. School or Faculty level managers, E&D people, or other folk who know their staff well and can bring more info into the matching (and probably help you not get so fatigued!)?
  • How do you manage the process of confirming the matched partnerships? How do you ask your mentors to spot any conflicts of interest? e.g. a match that looks great but the mentor is also supporting their own post-doc to apply for the same funding? e.g. two people who unforeseeably know each other socially.
  • If you have made a sub-optimal match — how do the participants alert you to your error and how will you sort it out?
  • Is ‘no match’ better than a ‘bad match’? How do you handle this expectation with your participants?
  • Have you the facility to add notes to the participant profiles (for your eyes only) to aid your matching e.g. a mentor is unlikely to write ‘I get excited and talk over people’ but pairing them with a mentee who is quiet and reflective is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

If you choose to go with option 3. which is the approach I use for the Think Ahead Mentoring programme and the Thesis Mentoring programme — some further ‘programme leader’ matching considerations for you to think through:

Who/what conversations does your mentee already have easy access to? Don’t duplicate this knowledge-base, add a complementary relationship. Some professional distance will help the conversations be more open, and honest.

Align your matching criteria with the style of your programme. What is ‘good partnership’ to you. Is your programme more about productivity and skills? Do you have very defined career development outcome expectations e.g. mentee must have a journal paper accepted within 6-months? Or is your programme aiming to enable wider interpretation of career development, and provide a good experience e.g. mentee can expect to feel listened to, and achieve understanding through good quality dialogue.

Mind the gap — people often think the most senior mentor will add the most value. In practice a huge gap in CV or career stage can be an intimidating experience. One or two steps ahead may suffice.

As a rule of thumb think about, ‘something the same (common ground), something different (learning space)’. While we don’t want to plunge mentees into deep discomfort by providing them with a mentor who is totally different, we do want to provide some room for learning.

Interviews with potential participants are a good way to define what questions to ask on your matching form. Be prepared to adjust the forms again after the programme has piloted and you have more info about the process and how the matches worked out. Example criteria for an early career researcher/academic programme: what do they enjoy/find frustrating about work; any career barriers or challenges; and career breaks; international work experience; industry/practitioner experience; experience in teaching; funding panel or professional society memberships; experience collaborating with non-university partners; mentoring and coaching experience; ideal mentee/mentor; home life & hobbies (so mentees can understand that academics are humans with work/life balance).

Manage mentee expectations on the matching form. Invite mentees to prioritise two criteria to avoid ending up with an ‘ideal mentor’ field filled in something like this impossible to fulfil example from the Think Ahead mentoring programme:

  • Woman
  • From a non-UK EU country
  • Has engaged in collaborative/team teaching
  • Who has dealt with a difficult PI
  • Who has experience getting funding from BBSRC
  • And who has had a maternity break

Matching, like all functions of designing and managing mentoring is a specialist professional practice. If it just naturally happened without us, we wouldn’t be needed. I hope I’ve persuaded you to think about matching as a central pillar of your mentoring programme. As always, your comments and discussion on this topic are invited. Please let me know how you match, and what works for you.


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