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Mentoring [Apr. 18th, 2006|05:05 pm]
I looked over a survey about mentoring for early-career people at work today, and had some reactions.

I thought the survey looked well-designed, but I'm not sure it will get at the problems that need addressing. Mentoring is a very tricky problem for a number of reasons.

First off, the person in need of mentoring generally doesn't know what he needs to know. He doesn't know what questions to ask, or who to ask them. If he knew these things, he wouldn't need mentoring. He might be aware of his ignorance, but he doesn't know what the boundaries on it are. So it's hard for him to know that he needs mentoring.

Second, even if he does feel the need for mentoring, it's very difficult to ask for it. Saying "hey, I could use some help managing my career" feels like an admission of incompetence, and not only is that a very difficult thing to say in general, it's even harder to say it to a well-esteemed colleague who's very good at managing their career -- which is exactly the kind of person you should be asking for advice.

Being an early career person is often highly competitive, and a request for mentoring can feel like exposing a weakness, which is dangerous in a competitive environment. Not to mention the fact that, even though everyone says "oh, yes, we'd be happy to mentor you", the more senior people are all incredibly busy. It's difficult enough to interrupt their schedules for requests related to work; demanding personal attention for ill-defined feelings of inadequacy seems like it would be well-nigh impossible.

So I guess my point is that institutions in general and this survey in particular both seem to view mentoring as something that should be driven by the person in need of mentoring, and it seems to me that that is the exact wrong person to be asking about it: he doesn't know whether he needs mentoring, because he has no frame of reference; he doesn't know what to ask for, because that's what mentoring would be teaching him; he doesn't have the nerve to ask for it, because he's in a relatively new and insecure position; and he doesn't have the social standing to request attention from the people who make the best mentors.

I also think that most of those who are in need of mentoring will not have a high level of self-awareness about the issue; they'll just know that the subject makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable, and that they wish it worked better, but they don't know what's wrong.

I'm all about root causes these days. Instead of asking the people who need mentoring "so, what would make mentoring work better for you?", I think that if we really want more mentoring to happen, we should be asking the potential mentors "Do you mentor? No? Why not?"

(I ought to be using "mentee" instead of the phrase "person being mentoring", but I can't bring myself to type it. It just looks dumb.)

[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2006-04-18 04:53 pm (UTC)
Is a female mentor a "mentrix"? Or does it need to have the long-a sound to get the -trix suffix? Hmm....
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[User Picture]From: goobermunch
2006-04-19 06:04 am (UTC)
I think so. Executrix, prosecutrix, mentrix.

Sounds good to me.

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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-04-18 06:56 pm (UTC)
At least in academia, people lie about this; they say, "of course, I mentor my junior colleagues", which really means, "yes, I tell my junior colleagues that they should be exactly like the total bullshit myths I have about myself.

I thus assert that formal mentoring is full of almost as much bullshit is formal networking is.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2006-04-18 07:38 pm (UTC)
This is a systemic problem not unique to mentoring. I would say something more thoughtful and insightful, but sadly, I am obsessing over shoes.
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[User Picture]From: nehrlich
2006-04-18 07:52 pm (UTC)
And even beyond all of the issues with the mentee (mentoree?) feeling vaguely unsatisfied and inadequate, there's the issue that even if the mentor gives them exactly the advice that they need, they won't recognize it as good advice and think that the mentor is being patronizing and spouting platitudes, not realizing platitudes exist for a reason. Or maybe that's just me.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-04-18 09:06 pm (UTC)
Thinking back on the start of my career, I think nothing quite as formal as "mentoring" ever happened. Now, in grad school, my professors did what I would call mentoring.

This is one of the hallmarks of an MFA program--it is aimed at training people in a skill and a profession, not just theory. So in addition to workshops, literary analysis, literary theory, and classes on compilation, we also had workshops on getting published, grant writing, self-publication, etc.

Also, almost every guest professor and professor gave a career biography: this is how I started out, this is what I did that was good, this is what I did that was dumb, here's what you should do now based on what I can see where I am now. We also read similar stuff from many successful authors (Phillip K. Dick has produced some seriously depressing autobiographical writing on his early career).

My impression is that many more academic/scientific grad schools don't include a lot of this, and I think perhaps they should.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2006-04-18 09:39 pm (UTC)
You are absolutely right: grad schools should do that, and they don't, generally. It's compounded by the fact that tenure track to professorhood is actually the minority career path; there are far more grad students than there are available professorships, so your advisor generally can't give you much advice if you're doing something else...
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-04-18 10:12 pm (UTC)
Maybe the answer would be placing the subject in the format of talks from guest speakers and short seminars.

Mind you, I'm not calling this a panacea. It's one part. Clearly, your manager should act as your mentor in the job. Out of curiosity, in your space what prevents a manager from taking this role--talking to the entry level person about career goals, advising him/her about demeanor, quality of work, etc? I know I had bosses who knew where I wanted to go and tried to offer me opportunities for training, advice about the industry, etc. (although it wasn't always good advice).
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2006-04-19 12:42 am (UTC)
"Manager" is ill-defined for most of the scientific staff. There's the person that's technically your supervisor, who's likely hideously overworked, but to a large degree, people are working independently. Probably moreso than they're supposed to be, but there's a need for junior scientists to develop their own research agenda and a name for themselves...
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-04-18 10:19 pm (UTC)
Yay, root causes!

But you make the same error, I think. The non-mentoring are not significantly more informed about the process than the non-mentored. I mean, sure, they know more (in principle) about the system, but that doesn't mean they know more (or anything) about the process of introducing new people to the system. Knowing how != knowing how to teach how.

So you can ask them "why don't you mentor?" or "why don't you mentor effectively?" but their answers may not be enlightening.

My approach here would be to back up one step and address the actual problem rather than the proposed solution.

The actual problem, presumably, is inefficiency on the part of new employees. (That's a sweeping term, meant to cover employees who quit in frustration because they don't know what's going on, employees who are fired because they don't know what's going on, and employees who manage to stick around long enough to figure out what's going on but could have gotten more done with less effort if that time had been shortened.)

This discussion sorta assumes that the proper solution is assigning them mentors as individuals, and then seeks to overcome the obstacles to making that work. That might be true but has yet to be established.

One obvious alternative that comes to mind, for example, is zone coverage. That is, assign individuals the job of "answering questions about blah" and make that part of their job description. The person you talk to about how to finesse a grant application isn't the person you talk to about how to deal with your spouse being irate that you're never home. Post the list of resources and topics searchable by topic centrally, keep it up to date, make maintaining it (including dealing with "who do I talk to about X?" requests for nonlisted Xes and putting them up there) somebody's job.

There are other possibilities as well (though I have to say, having written the above, that I rather like it).
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2006-04-19 01:00 am (UTC)
You're absolutely right. Although, to a non-trivial degree, "not enough mentoring" is a problem in its own right, for reasons of social and managerial pressure, whether or not it actually would solve the problems its intended to solve. So I'm kind of taking it as a given in my response to the survey.

Hopefully, if not knowing how to teach is a barrier, one of the answers to "why don't you mentor?" would be "I don't know how / I'm not comfortable doing it", but I might be giving senior scientists too much credit for self-awareness...

I like the zone coverage idea. If we get moving in a direction of asking deeper questions, I'll bring it up. The really hard part about that plan is "make it someone's job to create and maintain the information base". That requires both money and the social leverage to extract the information from the local experts.

Although, that still puts the onus on the person mentored to ask the questions, which is a problem. I think what we really need is a kind of mentor-yenta, who would occasionally drop in, watch what and how you were doing, ask some questions, and then, where necessary, drag the student off to a mentor, and say "you, ask him about X, Y, and Z; you, tell him about A, B, and C. Page me if you hit any roadblocks". The only hard part about that is finding someone who's an expert in evaluating competency and can keep track of a thousand employees and what they're good and bad at...
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-04-19 08:54 am (UTC)
that still puts the onus on the person mentored to ask the questions, which is a problem.

True. But it turns a query-and-response interface into a menu-driven one, which is usually an advantage in terms of ease-of-introduction.

Mentor-yenta sounds like a fine plan. In corporate environments this is defacto your manager's job, though of course some are good at it and others aren't.

The only hard part about that is finding someone who's an expert in evaluating competency and can keep track of a thousand employees and what they're good and bad at...

They don't need to be experts at evaluating competency... in fact, that's the wrong approach. That evaluation expertise is distributed throughout your organization anyway, no need to try and replicate it centrally, which is good, because you'll fail if you try. What you need is someone who networks well, can talk to people to find out who everyone who already knows what's going on thinks the go-to person is for topic X, find out what the list of Xes ought to be.

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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2006-04-19 07:27 am (UTC)
The way I view mentoring is the mentor takes an active interest in guiding the person's "education" through "something". This could be a career, training, etc.
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