Monday 12 June 2017

Day 12: When is a mentor not a mentor?

On Saturday's post, I mentioned mentors as a possible means to managing ones career path. It's no coincidence that this subject has come up around the time that ALIA has announced its Mentoring Scheme - it's something that I've been pondering for a couple of weeks now.

There are many approaches to mentorship - how does one find a mentor and approach them, and how does one manage their own relationship as a protege? (Note: I refuse to use the word "mentee". It's not a real word - even my spellchecker won't accept it - and protege sounds like you're taking the relationship far more seriously.)

I've often felt that finding a mentor is often the responsibility the responsibility of the person who wants to be mentored - much like finding an apprenticeship. You seek out those in the industry who inspire you, or who have paved a career much like the one you'd like to have yourself. You strike up a conversation with them - it might be at an ALIA event - exchange business cards, see if they're on Twitter, and then take opportunities to continue the relationship. Sometimes you'll hit it off, sometimes you won't. If you do, send them an email, let them know that you're interested in progressing into their sector / area of specialty, and you'd love the opportunity to chat more about it over coffee some time.

When you do meet up, have some interesting questions, and be prepared to listen and learn. Again, gauge how the relationship is going, and whether you're on the same wavelength, and the more confident you feel, take opportunities to open up a bit about your own challenges in your work (without sounding like a whinger!) and see how they respond. Stay in touch - meet up for regular catch-ups - again, coffee is generally a good option, and keeps things casual and friendly. A good mentorship is one that doesn't feel forced or bound by obligations. But, of course, you don't want to be wasting their time either. If you're not prepared to work to progress your own career, then a mentor might initially offer you advice, but as time passes, they'll lose interest in supporting you.

Also, I've formed a number of supportive professional relationships over the years - but I would never refer to any particular one as a mentorship - especially not to their face! That's not to say that I haven't appreciated the support I've received from time to time through my career - I have and I do! And similarly, in my role as the New Grads Convenor, I've often started ongoing relationships providing support and advice to new graduates starting out. But I've mostly felt that these connections have been more through a mutual commitment to the industry and overcoming common professional challenges, rather than necessarily just finding help to get a better job. I think it totally counts, but is a mentor a mentor if it's not formalised? It can be a fine line sometimes between having a supportive more-experienced peer / supervisor, and a mentor that provides advice and possibly even grooms you for promotion / poaching into another team (if they work in the same organisation as you).

That said, an organised mentoring scheme is something else completely. It's like a matchmaking service for people who can't find the right mentor for them - and really, it's such a changing industry that what worked for one person five years ago might not work for somebody else starting out right now. And, of course, those in isolated roles/locations or highly-specialised field can find it hard enough to find peers let alone mentors.

(On a side-note, running with my online dating comparison, wouldn't it be cool if there were a Tinder-like app for finding mentors / proteges? i.e. swipe right if you'd be prepared to mentor or be mentored by the person on the screen. If they match - instant mentorship!!)

I don't mind paying for an organisation like ALIA to set up a mentor-protege pairing. After all, there's substantial labour involved in setting it all up, and ensuring that people are paired off appropriately. The idea of quality control is one that I'm still curious about, though. On one hand, it's great that a program like this provides access to a wider pool of mentors, who are prepared to set up a formal mentor / protege relationship, and sign agreements that they will commit to forming a productive relationship. On the other hand, I also feel like you only get out of these things what you put in, and so the onus is ultimately on the individuals to maintain their commitment, rather than on ALIA to exercise quality control for a paid service.

Obviously, there are pros and cons to either approach. Personally, I have a good idea of which direction I need to take in my career, and where the challenges and pitfalls lie, so I'm already building the kinds of relationships I need to be able to address them. However, I'd also be curious to sign up for the mentoring scheme purely to see who I get paired up with, and what interesting conversations might ensure from there...

For those who are interested, the ALIA Mentoring Scheme is open to ALIA members, and applications close on 23 June 2017.

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