5 Fairy Tales People Believe About Mentoring in Higher Ed

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Once upon a time, I lived in a magical fairy tale world where higher education professionals, educated and insightful individuals, knew exactly how to navigate a mentor program and the results were nothing less than charming.

Then I woke up.

Sadly, the real world presents many obstacles to this “happily ever after,” and a belief in the fairy tale mentorship creates unsuccessful and unsustainable mentor programs. The five fairy tales below highlight five major lessons learned from designing and growing a university-wide mentor program.

Before I begin, a caveat: Everyone’s story is different. Yet perhaps you can find relevance to your own institution and inspiration to begin or improve your mentor program.

For almost ten years, I have worked with a university leadership development program that cultivates faculty and staff from every area of the university in a series of day-long sessions. Part of this development includes an embedded mentor program. The leadership program was created in 2008 through a cooperation of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs to cultivate leaders within the university. The goal is for participants to use these new skills in their current position and to hopefully grow into executive leadership positions. The mentor portion was designed to connect participants with executive leadership and take the curriculum outside the constraints of a monthly meeting. Mentors are approved by the Provost and can fluctuate year to year depending on availability. Through analysis and feedback from over 200 participants, the leadership team and I have discovered that having a fruitful and sustainable mentor program is not an easy task. It takes time, resources, dedicated people, admission of failures, and courage to take risks.

Fairy Tale #1

Professionals are enchanted with knowledge of how to mentor and how to be mentored.

Several years ago, we were nearing the end of the leadership development series and subsequently the mentor program.  I was having a discussion with the group of faculty and staff about their mentor experience. One unabashed participant spoke up and stated,

“My experience wasn’t very good.”

Awkward silence filled the room as we waited for further explanation.

“My mentor didn’t know what to do. He (the mentor) asked me what we were supposed to do…and I didn’t really know…so we really didn’t do anything.  No one really told me what to do.”

I was dumbfounded. I had thought this magical mentoring was occurring, and now I was being told “no one told me what to do.” This was crazy! Don’t people understand how to mentor and be mentored? No, we cannot assume that they do. The term mentor is used so freely we accept that everyone should understand its purpose, and thus understand how to participate in a mentor program. Once we realized that ambiguity was rampant, we approached mentor as a brand new term and created a qualitative curriculum to define it.

First, beefed-up communication was sent to the mentors explaining expectations and rules of engagement. Specifically, their role is to provide participants with an opportunity to observe firsthand how the leadership of the university works and provide them with some experience analyzing real problems and issues confronted by university leaders. A leadership autobiography is required from each mentor so that mentees have a better understanding of these individuals as leaders. This also provokes the mentors to self-reflect.

Second, the process of being mentored was strategically reviewed with the mentees, allowing them to dissect their own beliefs, ideals, and professional aspirations. What did they want out of a mentorship? (This is explored further in fairy tale #4, below).

Third, the mentor experience was mapped out, including possible activities and strategies to organize mentor/mentee interactions. A strong emphasis is placed on the initial meeting between mentor/mentee so that both have an understanding of mentee goals, preferred methods of contact, and a tentative schedule of future interactions. At this meeting, mentors/mentees are encouraged to explore possible experiences, including personal one-on-one meetings, shadowing appropriate business meetings, or participating in a special project or other activity that will help mentees develop their personal leadership capacity. Mentees also enter this meeting with a clear understanding of specifics they want to learn from their mentor.

Fairy Tale #2

One magic slipper fits all mentor programs.

Universities are vastly diverse. How can we believe that an out-of-the-box mentor program will be universally successful or that we can take program X from ABC College and shove it into XYZ University? Constructing a mentor program to fit your specific institution is critical for three reasons.

First, an institution must understand why they need a mentor program. Is it to build future leadership? To instill the culture of the institution? To mold apprentices? Or is it not institutionally-based at all, and merely provides individual employee growth? If you cannot answer this question, the purpose of your mentor program will be vague, and this will hinder its success.

Second, your institution must decide on a mentoring structure that fits. For example, our program runs December through April. December is the month of initial contact to set up the scheduled meetings for the spring. The program officially ends in April; however, participants understand that continued interaction can occur after this date if desired. One year, we decided to move the start date to October. Chaos ensued. Remember, mentees and mentors do work at your institution, so setting a realistic schedule to create optimal adaptation will help both complete the program.

Third, you must crew a mentor program; it can never be set to autopilot. Without active engagement throughout the process, issues will not be identified.  The crew is unique to each institution and must be carefully selected. If there are not people to customize a program and steer it along, it will fail.

Since our mentor program is housed within a leadership development program, the focus is on the practice of leadership and the triumphs and challenges that come with this responsibility at a large public university. With this purpose in mind, mentees are encouraged to select a mentor outside their organization, step out of their comfort zone, and engage with an area of the university with which they may not otherwise have opportunity to engage.

Fairy Tale #3

This one is too soft, this one is too hard. (Finding what is just right.)

Remember Goldielocks and the three bears? This bed is too soft, this bed is too hard, this one is just right? We have our own Goldielocks story.

In the beginning, we tried to leave the mentor program very open, or as I liked to say, organic, to let the mentor and mentee decide their own direction. (Remember Fairy Tale #1.) With this approach, the data showed a 50/50 success rate; only half of the mentees were satisfied with the experience. In the world of higher education, we like our syllabi and calendars with due dates and progress checks. When left open to interpretation, the result was stress on the part of mentors and mentees.  They felt the meetings were unclear and unproductive or lacking in real leader substance. And of course in some cases, the mentee did not connect with their mentor at all. This one is too soft.

To remedy this, for a more theory-in-practice approach, we decided that a project chosen by each mentor would be a grand idea. Mentees would work alongside their mentor on a real-world university project. However, this resulted in mentees feeling as if they inherited a second job without the compensation. Some mentees were not even working with their mentor, but were passed on to another individual in the mentor’s area to fulfill the project. This one is too hard.

Finally, a solution was found that was a blend of the soft and hard approaches.  Both the hard and soft approaches are still utilized, but each to a lesser extent. Guidelines for mentors are provided with an explanation of what the introductory meeting should look like and with suggestions for regular meetings and projects. To protect against mentor project misapplication (as in the example above), we suggest participation in an ongoing project so that the mentee may learn from the leadership of the mentor. This emphasizes the need for the mentor to be actively present.

Finding just the right balance is unique to each institution.

Fairy Tale #4

I wish… for a promotion.

Some people, not all, view a mentorship as an interview or a foot in the door to a promotion. While this may be true in some instances, it cannot be generalized. We discovered that what people wanted from this experience varied widely.

Below are four examples of mentee expectations other than a promotion.

  1. A staff member had ‘grown up’ in the university starting at entry level. She suddenly found herself supervising people who used to be her co-workers.  She chose a college dean who had the same experience of growing within the university and who could give insight into how to handle specific interpersonal situations.
  2. A female staff member strategically chose a female executive to help her frame gender and leadership within higher education.
  3. A faculty mentee was paired with an executive leader in community relations to better understand the impact the university has within the community.

Success and growth of an individual is not always measured by a higher title. A study of past participants found that the mentor program allowed mentees to realize their leadership potential while establishing strong networks. Their confidence and self-awareness as a ‘leader’ were strengthened. In terms of new professional opportunities after the program, 43% were in a new position, with 80% of these individuals being promoted. There are many paths to professional growth in a mentor program.

Fairy Tale #5

Big Bad Mentorships are scary.

Sadly, bad mentorships will happen. This does not mean that the mentee or mentor is at fault, nor does this mean someone is the villain. There are many factors that can produce a less than delightful experience. Hectic schedules, ambiguous goals, different personalities, and unexpected work/life events can all derail a mentor/mentee experience. It is only scary if one dwells on these negative experiences. Do not let one poison apple soil the entire program. Have courageous conversations. Explore the reasons an experience did not work.

First, it is ok to admit you were a lazy mentee. Some past mentees openly admitted they were not proactive in their mentorship. We took this insight and developed tips for future mentees on how to avoid this trap.

Second, it is not ok to villainize a mentor.  Two mentees can have very different experiences with the same mentor. Do not ruin another mentee’s impression of a mentor with negative talk. Having a clear understanding of what is wanted out of a mentorship is key. Picking a mentor solely based on name recognition without knowing their background or leadership style can result in not meeting a mentee’s expectations.

Third, take a bad experience and make it better. I was walking in the food court several months after the program ended, and a past mentee approached me. She stated that her mentorship was not what she wanted, and she wanted more time to interact with her mentor. I told her to invite her mentor to coffee. She looked at me, stunned. She was nervous about contacting this individual outside the organized program. Sometimes people are hesitant to pursue something a second time that ‘failed’ the first time. Learn from those failures and move forward.

The Real World

Our mentor program is ever evolving, and as it grows we may discover more fairy tale views to rethink. One person cannot run a mentor program. It takes a team of individuals with different insights and backgrounds to contribute to development. I’ll leave you with some main lessons learned:

  1. Spend time teaching the art of mentoring.
  2. Make sure everyone involved understands the purpose(s) of your mentor program.
  3. Provide a flexible structure that the mentee/mentor can easily adapt to their goals. This includes documentation that both can refer back to.
  4. Get real with feedback. Ask for it often and anonymously.
  5. Be willing to go back to the drawing board if it is not working.

Don’t be discouraged if you find that you are living in a fairy tale. Trust me, with a little work, you can live happily ever after in the real world too!

~The End~