The In-Person Connection – Interview with IMA Board of Directors member Dr. Allison McWilliams

1. What about mentoring inspires you?

Everything! I have been fortunate to have personally benefited from great mentoring in my personal and professional life, and I know first-hand how impactful it has been. In my current role, I get to see the impact of mentoring every day on a new generation of current and future young professionals. It is a gift, every single day.

2. How, and when, did you get into the mentoring field?

I have been involved both formally and informally since I first started working in higher ed., roughly 17 years ago.

3. What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

You don’t always have to have the right answer. More often than not, it’s about asking the right question at the right moment, and then paying attention and listening.

4. Other than being an IMA board member, what is your role now, and how does it contribute to the mentoring field?

I am director of the Mentoring Resource Center at Wake Forest University. I work with people across the university who are leading mentoring programs and serving as great mentors and mentees, and I help to grow and enhance their skills and programs.

5. Describe a specific success story in your work as a mentoring leader and how you achieved it.

When I came to Wake Forest four years ago, the Mentoring Resource Center did not exist. I was charged with creating it from scratch. Now, we have more than 20 formal mentoring programs in place, we have trained more than 3,000 people, and we have seeded mentoring initiatives across the institution and in multiple cities. Key to all of this work has been great collaborative partners—there is no way I could have done it on my own!

6. Describe a specific challenge in your work as a mentoring leader and how you overcame (or are overcoming) the challenge.

Working in higher education, there is an ongoing opportunity and challenge in that every four years, you have an entirely new population. So, in real terms, our work is never done! I am always thinking about how we grow our programs, educate a new class of students, and continue to engage people across the institution in this work.

7. What mentoring program models have you experienced, and what seems to work best and in what conditions?

We have both formal and informal programs, one-on-one, group models, distance models. We’re willing to try pretty much anything that facilitates great conversation! But I have a strong bias towards in-person, one-on-one relationships. There is just nothing like that interpersonal connection. Interestingly, a lot of people talk about how this generation of young people is so “wired” that they don’t know how to have in-person conversations. My experience is just the opposite. Perhaps because of their high reliance on technology, I find that these young people are starving for that in-person connection, for someone to just say, “I’m paying attention to you.” It’s not hard.

8. What are the top challenges faced by mentoring programs, and what advice do you have for overcoming those challenges?

At the end of the day, these are programs built around people, and they will only be as good as those people choose to make it. Mentoring programs require constant tending. It takes time, and work, and resources. Mentoring is a strategic intervention and should be managed as such. Mentoring programs fail when they are taken lightly.

9. How do you respond to people who think formal mentoring programs are unnecessary?

I think there are benefits to both formal and informal mentoring relationships. Formal mentoring programs provide structure and oversight that can mitigate some of the potential obstacles that may arise. Informal relationships have the benefit of building upon more natural connections but often lack that needed structure. Particularly with young people, I think structure is crucial. They don’t necessarily know how to navigate these relationships, and they are building important skills along the way.

10. What needs to happen to further develop the field and profession of mentoring?

We need more empirical research on the impacts, processes, and practices of mentoring across multiple sectors.

11. Where would you like to see the mentoring field in 20 years, and why?

I would love to see the day when we no longer have to use the word “mentoring,” actually. I would love to see a world where this is just the way that we engage with one another as human beings. To me, it’s a philosophical and an ethical move.

12. What else would you like to share with the mentoring community?

The IMA is a great resource and community of individuals who are engaged in the work and practice of mentoring. Use this group to your benefit! You won’t regret it.

About Dr. Allison McWilliams

Dr. McWilliams
Allison McWilliams, Ph.D. Director, Mentoring Resource Center, Wake Forest University


Dr. McWilliams is the director of Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Professional Development at Wake Forest University. As director, McWilliams provides support, guidance, and resources for formal and informal relationships and programs to prepare students for life after college. Dr. Williams has served as a facilitator for leadership development, organizational development, and mentoring programs and initiatives for both higher education and public sector audiences.