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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: 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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