the many uses for the mentoring skill-set

In the course of my last seven years at the University of Sheffield as Mentoring Consultant, I have welcomed many hundreds of new participants into university-wide mentoring programmes. One of the most enjoyable parts of my role is in meeting new people and helping them get to grips in a very practical way with how mentoring and coaching conversations work, and the creative thinking and insight they can help unlock.

When I’m inducting new participants into mentoring programmes, I bring groups of new mentors and new mentees together into the same room. Every new participant receives the same induction and this helps to make sure that all parties have heard the same messages and have the same expectations for mentoring. This makes the aims, methods and limitations of the mentoring programme and partnership more explicit and certain for all parties, and it builds trust between mentors, mentees and me as the programme director. Mentees have the opportunity to hear first hand how volunteer mentors feel that mentoring is a form of good citizenship, that it is their responsibility to help more junior staff, and their fears they won’t be always know all the answers. Mentors learn more about the work-life issues of early career colleagues, and hear in their words, what is means to be listened to and supported in their research careers. It’s well worth rethinking your induction if you’re running separate mentee and mentor sessions.

I am of the opinion that in order to learn how to have a quality mentoring conversation, you start with the practice, see how it goes and then unpick what happened. So during the induction session we get right into practice, often using the following exercise in pairs, where person one is the mentee, and person two the mentor. And then later, after unpicking ‘what happened’ and ‘the impact on the mentee’ we swap roles.

coaching convo.png

Although most people can see the sense in everyone being present to hear what each other has to say, mentees sometimes question what the purpose of them practicing as a mentor during the induction session was. I am asked from time to time why mentees need to ‘be the mentor’ since that won’t be their role.

Here are four reasons I think it’s a great idea that everyone has the opportunity to learn the skills:

Firstly, it’s that I would hate to put mentees in a situation where mentoring felt like something that was going to be ‘done’ to them and they only has a partial awareness of the process. I want them to engage with full awareness of what is likely to happen when they meet their mentor.

Secondly, experiencing being both mentee and mentor gives both sides empathy for each others’ roles. They experience what it feels like to not have all the answers, not knowing what to ask or say next, and how difficult it can be to get right when you only have limited information about your mentee and their values, fears and hopes. Empathy for the difficulty of the mentor role, helps to build more trust, and increases likelihood of openness and success.

Thirdly, I have collected some case data that details how mentors use their mentoring skills with their own research teams, colleagues, and students. This may be as a PhD and Masters dissertation supervisor, a small group facilitator, as an undergraduate tutor, or in a student support and guidance capacity. So, since mentees will have a clear set of uses for mentoring skills, in their roles as early career researchers and academics, it would be poor practice to prevent them from gaining those useful skills.

And fourthly, to be recognised as a Senior Fellow of the HEA (by Advance HE), a marker of career progress, researchers and academics must demonstrate how they have influenced others, that is, mentored and developed their colleagues in good practices in learning & teaching. So it’s a skill-set that it’s wise to get to grips with at the early career stage, so they have a foundation awareness and practice to build on later.

I hope that you can see now, there are clear benefits to making sure everyone has the opportunity to develop a mentoring practice.

I am leaving Sheffield at the end of June 2019, to take up a new post at Glasgow Caledonian University. It has been my pleasure and privilege to blog on mentoring, writing and supervision for the Think Ahead blog these last seven years and if you have enjoyed my writing, I will be keeping up the Supervising PhDs blog and @supervisingPhDs Twitter account — come and join me there.

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