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I never cease to be amazed by how persistently people defend the guru model of mentoring. Even though most faculty are not getting their mentoring needs met, and there are alternative ways to engage in "mentoring," there’s still a strong desire by many tenured faculty to insist that matching new faculty with a single mentor (and hoping for the best) is more than sufficient. I’m going to assume that clinging to the guru model comes from a lack of understanding about what it looks like to engage in a different kind of posture relative to a mentee. So I’m going to make it plain this week by suggesting that the real difference is whether you choose to act as a guru or as a coach.

What’s the Difference Between a Coach and a Guru?

You already know that in the guru model, your role (as guru) is to be the oracle of wisdom for your new faculty mentee. Whenever they have questions, they should feel free to come and ask you. In contrast, the primary objective of the network model of mentoring is to empower your faculty mentee by helping him/her develop their own mentoring networks, serving as a connector for them to various people and units on/off campus, and setting up a structure in which they can rely on you to support their transition from graduate student (or post-doc) to professor. Instead of acting as a guru who meets all their needs by giving anecdotal advice about your own experience, you coach them to develop the skill of identifying their needs and figuring out the best places to get these needs met.

I know it’s hard to imagine what it might look for you to act as a coach instead of a guru, so let me suggest six concrete differences between the two:

1. Coaches are performance-driven. Gurus hope for the best. One of the greatest challenges that new faculty face is managing the inherent structural challenge of faculty life: the things that matter most to individual success (winning tenure, establishing a positive reputation in their discipline, etc.) have the least built-in accountability, while the activities that matter less to individual success have high degrees of built-in accountability. In other words, the biggest mistake new faculty members make is spending all of their time on teaching and service at the expense of research and writing. It’s an easy trap to fall into because teaching and service have built-in daily accountability (classes, office hours, meetings) whereas writing only has long-term accountability (a third year review). Guru mentors approach this problem by answering mentees’ questions (when asked). A coach encourages the new faculty member to develop a realistic semester plan and uses that document as a point of departure and diagnostic tool at each meeting with the mentee. Have you met your writing goals this month? If not, why? What’s keeping you from developing or sustaining a daily writing habit?

2. Coaches ask powerful questions. Gurus pontificate. To sum it up: Gurus tell, coaches ask. It’s really that simple. In the guru model, you are all-knowing, so your job is to tell your mentee how things have worked for you and how he/she should behave. The data for this analysis is your personal experience. In the network model, you ask questions. Not generic questions, but powerful questions that enable your mentees to learn through reflection. For example: What do you want? What’s holding you back? What new habits do you need to develop? What is the most meaningful action you could take now? What skills are you missing? What support systems do you need to be successful?

3. Coaches are task oriented. Gurus are relationship oriented. Guru mentors are relationship oriented because the entire mentor-mentee dynamic is based on the relationship between a tenured and untenured faculty member. If the relationship has "chemistry" then the scope and depth of what is shared is positively impacted. No chemistry leads to a superficial bond and limited (if any) meaningful resources, contacts, information, or opportunity will be shared. Coaches are task oriented. They are focused on helping mentees identify and achieve tasks that will move them towards their self-defined goals. For example, encouraging a mentee to create semester plan for the aspects of their job that don’t have built in accountability (their research and writing) so that they start strong, make strategic choices during their first year, and have feedback loops.

4. Coaches are for transition moments. Gurus are forever. You may be happy to learn that positioning yourself as a coach helping your mentee develop his/her Mentoring Network is a short-term gig. Your primary objective is to help your mentee understand the value and practice of cultivating a broad mentoring network, developing the skill of planning their research agenda, and encouraging them to continually ask: What do I need and where is the best place to get my needs met? As a transition coach, you know you’re work is done when several objective metrics have been met (i.e., they have a complete Mentor Map, strategic plan for their tenure track years, and have met semester writing goals). A guru-mentor’s time horizon is undefined but lengthy, ranging from an entire stage of academic life (the six years of the tenure-track) to an entire career.

5. Coaches rely on structure. Gurus rely on informality. Guru-mentors are imagined to be omnipresent in the lives of mentees so that their influence, advice, and guidance are communicated in an informal ongoing manner. The hope is that the mentee will pull together the crumbs of secret knowledge being dispensed over time and via continual exposure. By comparison, coaching a mentee to develop his/her own mentoring network is most effectively done in a structured format. Setting up a schedule of meetings during the first year at the beginning, middle and end of the term creates a container for critical conversations to take place and the meetings serve as guideposts and accountability structures along the path.

6. Coaches are other-focused. Gurus are self-focused. The guru is the center and star of the guru-mentor model and everything revolves around the guru. As a coach, the goal is to assist your mentee in developing the skills, habits and network they need to thrive. In short, it’s not about you, it’s all about the new faculty member. That means conversations are focused on their needs, their obstacles, and their challenges.

I’m sure my description of the difference between playing the role of guru versus coach makes clear that the most important distinction between these two models is the power dynamic. In the guru model, the guru has the power to bestow information, resources, and opportunities on the mentee according to his/her feeling in the moment. Mentoring becomes a grace bestowed upon some and not others. But when faculty position themselves as coaches, the opposite happens: they empower their mentees. Why? Because in coaching, the goal is not to develop a dependency on you, but to develop independence from you.

Weekly Challenge

This week I challenge you to:

1) Pause and reflect on your assumptions about what it means to be a mentor in terms of time frame, delivery, outcome, style, orientation and focus.

2) If you’ve operated in the guru-mentor model in the past, imagine what it would feel like for you to shift into a coaching relationship with your new mentee.

3) If you feel wedded to the guru-mentor model, gently ask yourself: why?

4) If you’re worried that your mentee won’t get what they need if you act as a coach, take another look at the Mentor Map and ask yourself: if this were full of names would my mentee be better off or worse off than relying solely on me?

5) If you haven’t already, set up mentor meeting with your new mentee for the beginning, middle, and end of the term.

6) Consider what it would look like to encourage your new mentee to develop a semester plan for their research and writing this term and to use that document as a benchmark for performance driven conversations.

I hope that it feels freeing to imagine yourself as coaching your mentee in the network-model of mentoring! Over the next two weeks I’ll focus on how to invest in your new mentee’s sense of belonging and how to help your mentee plug into structures for community, peer support and accountability for research and writing.

Peace and positive mentoring,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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