© 2003, by Barry Sweeny
ONCE UPON A TIME …
From 1988 to 1992 this author was Mentor Program Coordinator. Our program began with the very laudable concept that only the very best practitioners in our organization should be the mentors because we wanted them to serve as role models for the new employees who would be their proteges. To implement this concept, we used what I now call an exclusive selection process and criteria to identify mentors. The first year, we needed over 60 mentors, but when we finished recruitment, we had only 7 who signed up. This was in spite of a stipend, training provided, and what we thought was a title of honor. We overlooked the hidden message in this fact because we did not know what the message was. We decided to call that first year our program “pilot”, and indeed, it really was!
By the end of three and a half months of implementing the program, one mentor had quit, and all the remaining six mentors asked for a meeting with me. They expressed that if the program was not changed, they would all resign. Needless to say, I was stunned, fearful, and confused!
To shorten this story a bit, the cause of their concerns was the method of mentor selection we had used and the resulting attitudes toward mentors by non participants in the program. Our desire had been that mentoring would create a more collaborative culture, but what we had achieved was only more division. We had wanted to foster more cooperation, but instead, we had isolated the mentors from their non participant peers and friends. The mentors had been hearing statements like:
- “You think you’re really special, don’t you?!”
- “Why are you asking me for help? You have a mentor. Go ask her.”
- “Would you condescend to allow me to sit at your table for lunch?”
- “I didn’t think that someone as important as a mentor would want to join us for T.G.I.F. in a BAR!”
By the way we had chosen and honored mentors, by implication, we were perceived to have DIS honored everyone else because they were treated as if they were, “Not good enough to be a mentor.” YIKES!
EXCLUSION is NOT a good way to select mentors, but we didn’t yet know how to make selection a more open process without also letting anybody be a mentor who wanted to. We wondered, “How can we make this more positive and open without making mentoring a meaningless role of little or no quality?”
We searched the mentoring research literature for answers, but even today, 21 years later, you will NOT find the answers to this issue, EXCEPT right here at the IMA. It took us two years of trial and error to find the answers we needed (and that YOU need.) In the end, we discovered TWO critical concepts must be used – concepts which get at our fundamental beliefs about mentoring.
- Mentors don’t need to be MODELS of perfect practice. Rather, they need to model what less than perfect people (all of us) must do.
- Mentoring should be a MUTUAL system of support for MUTUAL learning, a two-way flow, rather than the classic top down method of the “sage on the stage”, a one way flow of experience and wisdom.
I sincerely hope that you can learn through our mistakes and that you don’t have to repeat them.
BEST PRACTICES IN MENTOR SELECTION
Organizations must carefully decide between two approaches to selection and the choice should be consistent with the purpose and goals of the mentoring program.
- AN EXCLUSIVE PROCESS –“Mentors must be the best available models of good practice.”
- -Many other experienced staff are then rejected as “not good enough”
- -The mentor’s job is usually to ensure the protege reaches a minimal skill level
- -Mentors may be called on to “evaluate” the protege. Even if informal, it’s a conflict.
- -The technical skills of the job are highly valued
- -A higher degree of stress accompanies mentor status since they are “special”
- -It’s possible that mentors will be identified as an “elite” group. This mean that mentoring may become divisive & not promote collaboration across the staff as a whole.
- AN INCLUSIVE PROCESS – “The best mentors must be good employees, but they must also be able to model continual, visible learning, openness to feedback, and the daily, career-long struggle to be the best they can be.”
- -Most veterans can be mentors at some point.
- -The mentor’s job is to model professional growth and to support the protege’s professional development
- -Lower levels of stress result from expectations that all will learn together from each other
- -Requires built-in, on-going training & support for mentor & proteges
- -Requires planned opportunities for monitoring, checking for problems, and a process to support mentors.
- -This means that the program needs a person (program coordinator) who will deal with any problems as they arise.
- -People skills, the development of analytical & reflective practices are valued for mentors.
Without a doubt, I recommend the “inclusive” approach.
AVOID THE “EXCLUSIVE” APPROACH
You should also avoid use of criteria which are soexclusive and unusual that few can or choose to try to attain them. That would create the impression that mentorship is an exclusive “club” to which only the best can belong. Such an exclusive approach can create many problems, especially in a collaborative, or egalitarian culture and can actually be counter to the collaborative culture that mentoring tries to establish. Further, it can serious decrease the number of people who will volunteer to be mentors in your program and it can create pressures and discomforts for those who do become mentors. You definitely want to avoid having criteria which will cause you to be perceived as saying to a mentor candidate, “Sorry, you’re not good enough to be a mentor.”
In fact, it is not necessary or even desirable to have mentors who are “the best” employees in order to build a highly effective mentor program.
USE THE “INCLUSIVE” APPROACH TO MENTOR SELECTION
A better solution is to use a more inclusive approach with “staged criteria”.
- The concept of the inclusive approach is to place the focus on mentors who:
- Meet certain minimal “threshold criteria”, and…
- Agree to model and work toward becoming the best mentors they can be, rather than mentors who are already great and who know everything.
- When the emphasis is on mentors as models of continual improvement, mentoring will be more consistent with a professional learning culture and the expectation that everyone is learning and growing.
You can be successful using an inclusive approach to mentor selection if you:
- Avoid creating the impression that “anyone can be a mentor” by the use of “staged criteria”. See below for advice about how to do that.
- Create face-saving ways to opt out – Create ways in which people who are mentor candidates can decide, at any step in the selection process, that now is not the time to become a mentor and choose to remove themselves from the process.
- That is accomplished by describing up front what becoming an effective mentor involves, then suggesting that those who would be uncomfortable doing those things should consider withdrawing their candidacy, at least for now.
- Design “safety checks” at points during the selection process which allow the program to ensure the quality and/or appropriateness of the candidate to move to the next step of the selection process. See below for more information on how to do this.
- Don’t create too rigid of a selection process. Allow for flexibility. Let those who are interested in learning more about the mentor program know they can come to and informational meeting to hear about mentoring and that they may opt out at any time they wish. This is critical because some of the less desirable candidate will self-select out of the selection process when the role of the mentor & the expectation of modeling visible learning for others is understood.
- Don’t make too many promises about what attending mentor training means.
People should understand that being trained as a mentor DOES NOT mean they will automatically be assigned to work with a protege. The point is to match the strengths of the mentor to the needs of the protege. This means that (unstated) a few poorer employees who somehow become trained mentors may find that they are never matched because the program can not find a protégé whose needs are matched to the strengths of the (poor) mentor.