PART II: Managing Mentoring Relationships – Tips for Mentors

June 20, 2016

Last week in Part I, we offered some ideas for mentees in order to maximize their mentoring relationships. This week, we are going to focus on mentors.

Mentors may find it difficult to find time and energy to manage and train someone, all while trying to satisfy their own work demands. In addition, teaching and training someone is a skill that must be practiced. If you are new at it, it can cause stress for all parties involved. Wondering how you can improve upon your own mentoring skills?

Here are some ideas for mentors:

Be mindful in selecting your mentee. The mentoring relationship, if conducted with care, can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both mentee and mentor. If the match does not fit though, it can also result in a lot of stress and unnecessary effort on both ends. Therefore, it is crucial that the mentor chooses their mentee with care. Assessing the mentee’s motivation, taking similarities and differences into account, and starting the mentorship with a trial period are all steps both parties can take to ensure a successful match. Selecting a good mentee also requires self-knowledge: what are your strengths and weaknesses, how much time and effort do you have aside from your own work, and how many mentees can you realistically take on?

Set clear expectations for performance from the start. In addition to getting used to the new workflow, mentees are also likely getting used to personalities and working styles of their new colleagues and superiors. As this takes time, being explicit about your objectives and expectations for the relationship from the get go will result in more productivity and a better mentoring relationship. Be sure to challenge your mentee, but do not set expectations so high that they feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Once you have seen the mentee’s performance, it is crucial to offer honest, specific feedback on a regular basis. Everyone loves positive feedback, but it is usually the negative feedback that sparks more learning and change. In instances where negative feedback is needed, it can be helpful to start off with a positive comment/suggestion, and perhaps end with one too. Once you have a sense that your mentee has attained mastery, escalate their responsibility over time to boost their confidence. Make sure to accelerate at a slow enough pace though!

Be accessible. Especially in the beginning. Even with the best communication and clear expectations in place, it can be difficult in a busy research environment to keep up to date and on the same page with both day to day tasks and long term goals. Projects and daily objectives change, mentees can learn of new opportunities that change their perspective. Therefore, keeping regular meetings, both formal and informal, can be a great way to check in, keep in the loop, and stay on the same page. Sometimes meetings are best in a formal context, but informal meetings over lunch or coffee can also help build rapport, and convey what you want in a more effective manner. No matter the context of the meeting, it is important for both parties to practice active listening, which includes dedicating full attention to the discussion, good eye contact, and engaging body language. In some settings, mentees could greatly benefit from even working directly with the mentor on a project; giving them direct exposure in your research and working methods could give them lifelong methods. No matter how you do it, it is imperative that you spend time engaging directly with your mentee.

Although mentoring a young researcher does not always result in a tangible benefit for the mentor, there are many valuable results that come from mentoring a student. First, creating a positive teaching relationship with a mentee often results in more work getting done for the lab’s or mentor’s own research project, saving time and energy. Playing the role of a mentor can also result in a greater self-understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher and leader.  Lastly, mentoring a young researcher benefits the scientific field as a whole, because it provides direct hands-on learning experience for young professionals who might have no other way of getting such experience. If done correctly, it constitutes a win for all involved.

If you want to read more about mentoring relationships, check out previous blog posts on: Identifying Mentors: Why it Matters  and Getting the Most Out of Mentoring Relationships.

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PART I: Managing Mentoring Relationships – Tips for Mentees

June 13, 2016

Perhaps you are a summer intern or you are managing a summer intern?

Regardless of your role, managing the mentor-mentee relationship can be a difficult task.  Attempting to creating a good personality fit  and work style with your mentor, and effectively offering and using feedback, all while managing ever-present demands in the workplace can prove to be a tough and confusing experience for both mentors and mentees.

Wondering how you can better choose and create a positive working relationship with your mentor or mentee?

Here are some ideas for mentees:

Take control of your career path, even when under the wing of a mentor. Even when you’ve found a mentor and created a good relationship, it is up to you to direct and own the relationship. So show leadership and direct it towards what you need. Once you’ve found a mentor, it is easy to sit back and assume that your path is set to go, or to defer to the mentor for all thoughts and directions. This can be a dangerous mindset to fall into though, because it removes you as an agent in your own professional future. Beginning mentoring relationships with a clear discussion of mutual goals and expectations is crucial. In a similar vein, as you continue in your relationship with this mentor, an ongoing periodic checkup is also important, to continually evaluate these mutual goals and expectations, and to assess whether the mentorship is still beneficial.

Become an expert at receiving feedback. It is always easy to accept a compliment, but part of becoming successful in any professional enterprise is accepting and working on your weaknesses. Therefore, it is crucial to be receptive to both positive and negative feedback given to you by your mentor. This means that you listen carefully, demonstrate that you understand, make your best attempt to adjust your performance based on this feedback, and then, after some time and effort, seek additional feedback on how well you’ve progressed. A helpful tool in improving receptiveness to feedback is to focus on your mentor’s communication style, how they offer feedback, and in turn, how you react to it. Also, remember that mentoring is a two-way street, and giving feedback to your mentor can be a valuable tool in boosting your working relationship.  This could come in the form of asking clarifying questions regarding directions or in advocating for yourself by saying, “I tend to work best when ____. Could we find a way to accommodate this?” 

Transition effectively if it is not working out.It is easy to become demotivated if you find that your mentor relationship is not working out the way you want it. Despite this, it is important to keep in mind that mentoring relationships can be complicated by many factors, including: differences in work style, communication style, changing motivations, and evolving workplace dynamics. Make sure to keep focused on your goals, and to leave emotions out of it. Once you find a new mentor, you can work to continuing to achieve your goals.

It cannot be overstated how important and complex the mentor-mentee relationship is. For the mentee, it could very well be a jumpstart into a lifelong career. For the mentor it could be an opportunity to profoundly impact a young researcher, as well as improve the mentor’s own communication and leadership skills. To ensure success, stay engaged, be clear in your communication, and take ownership of the opportunity.

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Next week, in Part II, we will discuss tips for mentors.