Redefining Mentorship (Part 5 of 5) Using Technology to Manage Quality & Quantity
By Dave Isbell & Taylor Whittington
Throughout this series we’ve tried to aim at helping you to rethink mentorship, to consider what it takes to be a great mentor or mentee/protégé, and to explore a few of the best practices for mentorship. For this last segment we wanted to leave you with some parting thoughts about how to create opportunities to both find and to keep mentor relationships. Specifically, we wanted to help you to consider how to use technology to foster “E-mentorship,” (Email mentorship; which we are expanding to include other technology such as social media, cell phones, etc.) This is a concept that is often overlooked in discussions about mentorship, despite the widespread use of technology that most of us use on a daily basis to connect with people. The use of technology can be a great asset to helping us to develop both the quality and quantity of our mentorship experiences, so it is important to consider.
Here are the top four things to consider when thinking about technology and the mentor experience:
- Develop a wide network of people who have a diversity of interests and experiences:
Quantity of connections. Since Mentorship is all about expanding the mentee’s capabilities, it makes sense that having more mentors can increase a person’s awareness. Social Media tools such as Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, etc. can be particularly effective when one uses them purposefully to connect with new people, maintain relationships with people they’ve already met, introduce people to one another, and ask people to connect you with people you would like to meet. Closing the gap on the six degrees of separation that we all have from one another can only help you to find the right person who will take the time to invest in you. Since you needed each of those connections on the “in-betweens” it is not a “waste of your time” with any of the people that you meet. To go one step farther, if you take a few minutes to listen to them, to learn something from them, to share something you know with them, it will increase the likelihood that the quality of those interactions will increase.
[Are you looking for a “mentor-like” figure to start out toward developing a “mentorship?” We’ve tried to make it easy for you to find those people! Helpful Spartans are people who have already raised their hand and said “yes” to the question of “will you answer the call if a Spartan needs to know something about your career?” You might also try wandering around the MSU Alumni Association’s Linkedin group, where nearly 60,000 Spartans signed up to stay connected to one another.]
- Be specific about the message you are sending about who you are and what you want to achieve:
Quality of interactions. Consider how quickly your network of connections could grow if you spend more time introducing yourself to people and talking about those types of topics that will support your growth instead of posting pictures of the lunch you just ate. You don’t need every person you interact with to be deeply entrenched in supporting your growth or to call them a “mentor.” (In fact, it may be a good idea to just leave the word “mentor” out altogether. At least until the relationship has been established. This word seems to imply a set of responsibilities that many busy people just won’t want to take on!) Any person who willingly shares information, introduces you to someone else, or invites you to a relevant event is “mentor-like” enough to be a part of your growth. However, you can’t usually convert a casual conversation into an actual mentorship until you have established that you are worth that person’s time. Take for example, how you use Facebook. Unless your profile, your content, and your voice on that platform indicate that you are someone they can take seriously on the subject that you would like to learn from your mentor about. Think about it. When you throw in your two cents on your friend’s post about your favorite band, or your least favorite politician, there is always a friend of a friend who chimes in to agree or disagree with you. You have established communication with a stranger in that virtual place about a topic with which you feel is important, and they have decided to get involved. Why wouldn’t it work if you were talking about a topic that could be more relevant to your personal/professional growth? How might that short comment you wrote spark an interaction, or a relationship, that could lead to the next thing you need to learn, do, or be? Be yourself, but be more deliberate about how you use these tools to grow toward whatever your goal is and watch what happens when other people see that you are a person who is mutually interested in a topic and is serious about learning from them.
- Manage your time well, but manage your relationships even better:
Quantity of interactions. The most effective way to get to know a person is to spend some time in the same room with them. However, this is not always possible, or even necessary in a mentor relationship. Studies on “E-Mentorship” have shown that communication across time/space boundaries can be just as rewarding as those in person visits. It’s also an easier sell for busy people who may prefer to cut the travel time out of the interaction. Agreeing to meet via Skype from the comfort of your own offices or homes may be the next best option to getting together over a cup of coffee in person. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation to be impactful. If ten minutes is what you’ve agreed to, then keep the appointment at ten minutes. Whatever is going to provide the two of you with the most ease and comfort of interaction is going to be what is likely to increase both the quality of the interactions. In an informal mentorship, there is no rule that says you must be x amount of hours each week. It may work out that you get more done in four 10 minute Skype sessions once per quarter than what you could have done in two hours per week in person. It’s all going to depend on the rhythm that works best for the two of you.
- Develop a depth of relationship with a small circle of people whose purpose is to support your growth:
Quality of relationship. If you’ve read the prior posts in this series then you already know that mentorship can be helpful to the mentee, even without reciprocity. You know that every mentor relationship doesn’t have to end up in deep friendship to be a great mentorship. Frankly, you don’t even have to like each other for it to work out well (though, it’s pretty obvious that is a major bonus if you want to have more interactions with the person!) However, it’s worth repeating that longer term mentorship often ends up in collegiality, mutually reciprocal camaraderie, and sometimes, friendship. That’s not the reason to go looking for a mentor, and it should not be the expected outcome every time! Mentorship in itself is a valuable enough experience and can come with an expiration date, which is often the most normal course of these relationships. The quality of the relationship, as in any other relationship, is going to depend on what both parties put into it. But in this case, since it is the mentee’s learning that is the focal point, the burden of having a quality experience is greater on the mentee. Unless the mentor is just completely off the rails (unethical, immoral, selfish, completely ignorant, etc.) it is the mentee’s willingness to learn, change, grow, and to manage the relationship that is going to be far more impactful for the outcomes than most people may expect. After all, a good mentor is more of a “guide at the side” than a “sage on the stage,” and if the mentee is not willing to walk, there’s not much for the guide to do but prop them up where they stand; and that would miss the entire point of the mentor relationship.
We hope you have gained at least a couple of new insights regarding mentorship throughout this series. Though formal mentorship programs can offer some benefit for participants, much has been written about them, and we really wanted to focus on the development of informal mentor relationships. Not everyone has access to, or is the right fit for, formal mentorship programs. However, we all have the capacity to find, and to benefit from, having the right mentors in our lives. It will take some effort on your part, but it can be a very valuable experience in the long run!
One Last Thought: As a final note (from Dave) I am constantly reminded by the students I interact with at MSU about how much I have to learn. They may be decades younger than me, and far less experienced in life, but they all come with their own unique stories, backgrounds, and experiences. I confess that in hearing some of their ideas, future plans, or weekend experiences, I catch myself resisting the urge to roll my eyes, to cringe at the thought, or to deliver a lesson on “why their plan will not work” or the plain old fashioned “I told you so,” in the aftermath of an ill-planned adventure. However I gain so much more by resisting the urge to give unwanted judgement or unsolicited advice. In listening to them I learn more about myself, my own biases and preconceived notions, the world around me, and a host of other things they routinely teach me without ever delivering one lecture. For instance, though I have been her “boss,” during her employment at MSU, Taylor has been one of those “mentor-like” people for me. (I’d like to think maybe she’s learned a few things from me too, along the way.) Writing this series together was just one example of how I was able to see something new, through her eyes, regarding a subject that I already thought I knew really well. I say all of that not just to say “thanks” to Taylor, but to encourage you, older-wiser-mentor, to take a minute to question your own assumptions, to listen to the people around you, and to learn from them something new today! Your “mentors” may be closer in proximity to you than you think.
Dave Isbell is the Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment in the MSU Alumni Association and is the primary person responsible for this blog and our corresponding Twitter account. His primary role in the MSUAA is to develop online content that helps Michigan State alumni to live, work, and play better in their own communities. Dave is not able to accept individual appointments, but in developing programs and projects he does draw from his experience as a Licensed Master Social Worker and his background as a professional Career Coach since 1999. Mentorship has played a significant role in his life and he has enjoyed being both the protege and the mentor.
Taylor Whittington is a student employee (Professional Enrichment Assistant) in the MSUAA and graduated in May 2018 from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s in Social Relations & Policy/Bioethics/Science, Technology, Environment & Public Policy from James Madison College. Next fall, she plans to begin a Master’s in Public Health at that school in Ann Arbor.