A mentoring reflection from Melissa Li, a Research Manager at the University of Michigan.
As the 2021 – 2022 NORDP Mentoring Program is coming to the end, I have officially been a mentor for one year at NORDP. Looking back at my journey of becoming a mentor, I’d like to share a few reflections with the NORDP community.
Why be a mentor?
Being a mentor requires time, energy and commitment. What motivates mentors to be willing to make investments in others? Generally speaking, mentors are at a career stage where they have been in a mentoring relationship as mentees formally or informally. They have benefited in their career growth from others’ time and investment. One of mentoring’s positive impacts is to inspire former mentees to help others who may be in similar situations or face similar challenges by paying it forward. Also, being an effective mentor requires a skill set that is gained through training, practice and constant refinement. Mentors, particularly new mentors, have unique opportunities to hone their skills that may not be developed in a regular work environment. Another benefit of being a mentor is that mentors get to know more people and expand their own networks. Last but not least, learning is not one-way. Everyone has strengths and unique experiences. Mentors can learn new perspectives, new knowledge and new tools from their mentees.
When to be a mentor?
For those who are considering becoming a mentor, one of the biggest questions probably is “Am I ready?” This was the question that I asked myself before I decided to become a mentor. There are a few factors that can be taken into account. The first is experience. Mentors often share insights based on empirical evidence which requires first-hand experience. So mentors usually have been in their fields for some years. However, the experience is not exclusively about professional experience; experience gained in one’s personal life is often transformable in professional contexts. A mentor’s experience is viewed as a holistic whole. Second, a mentor comes with a genuine willingness to engage in the mentoring relationship. To me, becoming a mentor was a calling. The idea of being able to help others gives me joy. There are at least two-fold meanings of willingness. One is about being willing to share knowledge and experience; and the other is about being willing to discuss one’s own lessons learned, including success as well as regrets and mistakes. Then, I asked myself, “Am I qualified to be a mentor?” This is about the next factor – confidence, which is the certainty one feels about the mentor role. A great way to seek validation is to ask those who you trust. For example, I asked two of my mentors, both of whom are senior leaders in my institution. Both fully supported my decision of becoming a NORDP mentor. Hearing them say “Melissa, you’re ready” gave me reassurance and confidence. Another important factor is commitment. As I mentioned earlier, mentoring requires time and energy. One should evaluate their bandwidth and make sure promised time is honored consistently. If you just changed your job recently or you are starting a major renovation project in your newly purchased house, it’s probably a good idea to delay starting the mentor role.
How to be a supportive mentor?
In my experience, the most fundamental and universal skill is active listening. Active listening enables us to gather information and recognize others’ perspectives and feelings. Remember, listening is to understand, not necessarily to respond. Via effective listening, mentors understand mentees’ questions, needs, challenges and so on. Demonstrating compassion without being judgmental helps develop trust in the mentoring relationship, so that mentees feel comfortable sharing “difficult things”. By effective listening, mentors also can understand what mentees want, including career goals and expectations during the committed mentoring period. Mentees usually are the drivers of the mentoring relationship. The job of the mentor is to align mentoring efforts to help mentees achieve their goals.
Another way to develop trust and create a safe space is to show vulnerability, which takes courage. This also circles back to the willingness that I mentioned earlier. Being willing to share not only successes but also “detours” along our career journeys will make mentees’ experiences richer so that they become conscious to avoid similar mistakes and they fully trust mentors by telling their struggles. In some cases, mentors don’t know some subject matters, simply acknowledging not knowing the answers is completely fine and normal. Using myself as an example, I asked one of my mentors “What do I do if I can’t answer my mentee’s questions?” My mentor said “You can just say ‘I don’t know.’” I have said “I don’t know” from time to time while trying to find answers by connecting them with others who are subject matter experts.
In addition, it takes a bit of project management skills for logistics. If I promise to follow up with my mentees on resources/information, I either do it right after the meeting or write a reminder on my calendar so that I don’t forget. Also, I take notes during meetings and review the notes 5 – 10 minutes before each meeting to be prepared.
Becoming a mentor provides a rich and rewarding learning experience! There are numerous mentor training opportunities and I have benefited through two programs. First, I participated in NORDP’s mentor training program organized by the Mentoring Committee. During the training, I learned that the facilitators were all trained by CIMER, the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research. I was inspired by my CIMER-trained peers and have since become a trained CIMER facilitator too. The training prepared me well as a mentor. I know this is just the beginning of my mentor journey. I look forward to many years ahead being a mentor.