On Mentoring

Few people, I think, have jobs they’re always happy with. Everyone has bad days (weeks, months,) and sometimes the threshold that keeps you in an organization is crossed by finding the incidental things which turn bad days into good ones. Sometimes it’s as simple as some good banter with your colleagues, or a top of the range coffee machine, or getting back at Barbara for filing your form wrong last week. Other times you’re finding ways to win over your superiors, or quietly averting disaster (again).

Many of these things are easy to understand and encourage. Some of them are good for the organization as a whole. But I think it’s hard to find really productive perks of a job. For me, the best perks seem to be the hardest to find. So today we’re going to talk a little bit about mentoring, and how I’ve come to consider it one of the hidden gems of the workplace.

Mentoring your workmates looks, in some lights, almost counterproductive. You’re both giving up time you could use to be productive to sit and have a chat. From the mentor’s perspective, you’re giving your experience to someone else – who could end up usurping you – for nothing. On the other side, you’ve got this know-it-all telling you what to do all the time. I’ve been in both positions, but I’ve come to realize that (like so many things) it’s only as good as what you make of it. The mentors I ended up respecting have turned out to be almost prescient, sometimes anticipating my struggles years before I’ve understood them myself.

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Now from a business perspective, it seems pretty clear to me that having your experienced staff transfer some of their softer skills can help junior employees fit in and become productive more quickly. I can also make the case that helping staff to understand and think through their roadblocks can get them into more suitable niches or develop their skills to be more well rounded. Mentees take a small investment of resources now for a potentially great increase in production later, so it’s a long-term benefit for a short-term cost. But if I’m a mentor, why should I care? Is it just work I have to do occasionally to increase someone else’s productivity?

I’m sure you’ve seen through my rhetorical questions. As I’ve grown as a scientist and taken more opportunities to mentor junior colleagues, I’ve noticed that it’s made me think more carefully about how I work. After one discussion with a mentee about time management, I ended up thinking through my schedule more thoroughly and ultimately adjusting when I work – to the benefit of my productivity. Likewise, after I discussed gendered language in the workplace with another mentee, I found myself being more conscious about how I communicated with the people around me. These experiences have shaped me both professionally and personally, to the benefit of everyone involved and the University as a whole. There’s a clear business and personal case to make mentoring a cultural foundation of any organization. But there’s something more here.

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There are times, as a mentor, when your words come out and you see yourself in the person in front of you. You understand that you’re saying now what you needed to hear some years ago. When those words land, when they make a difference for someone – whether they realize it immediately or not – you know you’re making an essential difference to the other person’s life. Sometimes bittersweet and sometimes joyful, it’s a rare and emotionally intense experience. I’ve not done many things as profoundly fulfilling.

That fulfillment is the key. When you’re coming home after a difficult week, knowing that you did right by someone absolutely makes that difference of satisfaction. It can enable you to come back, to keep caring about your work. It sometimes singlehandedly keeps me engaged in my job, and that’s on top of the other benefits to the organization which we covered.

Mentoring is often under-appreciated, sometimes dismissed as airy thinking, or discarded by some colleagues as somehow for weak people. I pity them, because they miss out on one of the best experiences a job can give. Sometimes, it shows.

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About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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