Tests and Challenges in Mentoring Relationships

Tests and Challenges in Mentoring Relationships

In times of crisis, having a trusted go-to mentor can help put a situation in perspective.

What would you do if you knew that following your own convictions could result in a barrage of bad press, possible loss of your hard-earned career, and even death threats?

Frequently, higher education administrators find themselves in situations of challenge and controversy and are forced to act quickly, without complete information. In the past few years at our own universities, Loyola Marymount and Claremont McKenna, our leaders have had to respond to a wide variety of challenges, such as racial incidents, bomb scares, and personal tragedies that befell our students and staff.

For our book on mentoring, we interviewed 50 business leaders and politicians about their mentoring relationships. We learned a great deal about how having these relationships has helped them to respond most effectively during times of difficult choices made under intense scrutiny.

Consider U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who voted no to giving George W. Bush the unilateral authority to declare war after 9/11. She was the only one among 421 members of the House of Representatives to do so. Her decision was met with intense scrutiny and vilified by many.

Peer mentors may
be easier to connect with as well as to exchange ideas with than a
traditional mentor.

Lee's mentor and predecessor, former U.S. Representative Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), had given her this advice: "I told her to be comfortable with her vote because people will sense her comfort or discomfort. I encouraged her to ask herself what is in the best interest of the children, [who] cannot articulate for themselves. And what is in the best interest of the future?"

Mentor relationships can encourage people to look at their own personal future, as well. William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, for instance, aims to get the graduate students he mentors to set realistic goals. When expectations are set too high in the beginning, people won't be able to succeed. Too-low goals, meanwhile, will mean they can't grow.

A mentor should not always be one who fits the traditional mold: older and wiser in age and experience than the prot?g?. Consider a wide network of potential mentors, such as:

Peer mentors can provide the support and insight that a traditional mentor might provide. These mentors, however, are at the same professional level or just one step ahead, and they may be easier to connect with and exchange ideas with than a traditional mentor.

Inspirational mentors, intellectual heroes or heroines who can provide a compass for direction and clarity. They can be someone to look up to and provide a litmus test: "What would so-and-so do in this situation?" For several of our interviewees, Martin Luther King was an inspirational mentor.

Barrier-busting mentors, who reside outside of your institution and enable you to form non-traditional alliances, such as with colleagues at another institution. We learned that mentoring occurred across party lines in the U.S. Congress and across competitors in business (e.g., Disney and Nickelodeon).

How does one find a mentor? One way is to articulate not only what you want or admire in a potential mentor, but what you can give back as a prot?g?. What complementary skills, knowledge, or abilities might you offer a would-be mentor that will fulfill a current or future need he or she has? This may simply be a need for appreciation or to be seen as a developer of people.

Whenever possible, have someone else provide an initial introduction to a targeted mentor-so you're making a warm call, rather than a cold call. Nurturing a network of potential mentors now can pay off significantly when the next inevitable crisis, challenge, or test emerges at your institution or in your career.

Ellen Ensher and Susan E. Murphy are co-authors of Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2005). Ensher is an associate professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Murphy is an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College (Calif.).


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