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Dear Kerry Ann,

I’m starting the second year of a tenure-track appointment and there’s one area where I continue to struggle: mentoring. I still don’t feel like I have any real mentors in my department. I have three people who were assigned to mentor me in my first year, but it was unclear what that meant. The meetings and conversations tended to result in a conclusion of: “You're doing fine. You know what you need to do. Just keep doing it.” I know my colleagues mean well, but that advice wasn’t particularly helpful.

I have tried to expand out, but it’s so awkward to ask someone to be my mentor and I am struggling with how to make the most out of mentoring conversations. One idea I have is to learn to ask more focused questions, seeking mentoring around a particular project rather than mentoring in general. I’m at a loss, so any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.

Why is it so hard to find mentors?


Seeking Mentors

Dear Seeking Mentors,

I’m glad to hear that your department took an important first step by matching you up with three of your senior colleagues during your first year. And I also understand the awkwardness that ensues when you’re matched with someone without clarity about the expectations and parameters of that mentoring relationship. Many mentor matches fail to be useful for exactly this reason.

I also appreciate that you’re asking what you can do to maximize your mentoring conversation. It tells me that you assume your colleagues want to help you, but the amorphous format of “mentoring conversation” isn’t working. There are several things you can do to maximize these conversations, and your intuition about getting more focused is on the right track. Let me share with you the three questions I ask myself when I want to maximize mentoring.

Mentoring Question #1: What Exactly Do I Need Right Now?

I start each week by identifying my biggest challenge and clarifying what I’m missing that would help me overcome that challenge. Depending on what the challenge is, I may need:

  • Specific information
  • A connection/introduction
  • The advice of an experienced person
  • A brainstorming session
  • A little emotional support
  • Some laser coaching
  • Feedback on an idea, paper or teaching technique.

The more specific I can be about what I need, the clearer my request for help. So as you move into your second year, I want to encourage you to start building the habit of identifying on a weekly basis what your biggest challenge is and clarifying what exactly you need to face that challenge.

Mentoring Question #2: Who Is the Best Person to Meet My Need?

Once you identify what you need, the next question is who is the best person to meet that need. It’s almost always the person who already has what you want! For example, if you’re struggling to navigate the internal bureaucracies of your university to get a grant proposal out the door, and you need information and a connection to move forward more expeditiously, the best person to ask is the colleague in your department who most recently submitted a grant to that funder.

If you are struggling with managing student attention in your first large lecture course, the best person to ask is your colleague who has won multiple teaching awards and is legendary in the large lecture format. Or maybe you’re struggling with how to have healthy conflict with a senior colleague -- why not ask someone who is widely respected for her diplomacy skills how she conveys intense disagreement without disrupting her professional relationships?

This question will likely take you beyond the realm of your designated departmental mentors, and that’s OK. In fact, asking the question this way may also release you from the idea that all mentoring conversations need to happen with senior colleagues (sometimes the person who has what you need is a peer or even someone junior to you). It also means that there are times when the best person is not even on your campus. The great news is that you can call or Skype with any academic on planet earth, so there’s no reason to restrict yourself to the three people you were matched with last year.

Mentoring Question #3: How Can I Maximize Our Conversation?

Once you know what you need and who is the best person to meet that need, it’s time to ask for a conversation. I strongly recommend that you avoid using the word “mentoring” in the conversation, and whatever you do, please don’t ask the person to be your mentor. I’m not saying this to be mean, but asking for a mentoring conversation or someone to fill the vague, lifelong role of being your mentor is unlikely to result in a quick yes, because it’s too big, too open-ended and doesn’t feel urgent. Instead, ask in a way that is highly likely to produce a quick and easy yes. For example:

Can we chat for 20 minutes about ___________ (insert the challenge). I need ___________ (insert need). You’ve ___________ (insert flattering statement of fact that they already have what you need). I’m available on ___________ (insert three available time slots).

Ultimately, I challenge you to stop thinking about mentoring as the relationship you have with the three people you were matched with last year and start thinking about mentoring as a new habit for you build. Specifically, for one semester why not try ending your Sunday Meeting by:

  1. Identifying your biggest challenge right now and clarifying what you need to overcome it
  2. Determining who can most quickly and effectively help you with that need
  3. Drafting a short email request to that person asking for a brief conversation to discuss your specific challenge and need.

Just one term of building your asking muscles in this way will result in lots of short mentoring conversations. Some will be extraordinary, some will be awful and lots will be uneventful but effective. By December, you’ll have shifted from having awkward generic mentoring conversations to practicing mentoring as a habit, and you’ll have built a big supportive mentoring network in the process.

I hope it’s clear why it’s so hard to find mentors! It’s because we don’t know how to articulate exactly what we need, we go to colleagues who are labeled as “mentors” instead of the people who can best meet our needs, and then we ask the wrong questions (“Will you be my mentor?” “Can we have a mentoring conversation?”) instead of asking for a targeted conversation. I hope that this reframe of mentors and mentoring will help you to stop looking for mentors and start building a mentoring practice.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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