You are here

Human Resources

A Helping Hand

Mentoring opens doors for employees.
University Business, Nov 2007

THE CONCEPT OF MENTORING in the workplace is certainly nothing new. Employees have been guiding other workers for centuries. But what's different today is how such programs have evolved at higher education institutions, helping employees succeed in all aspects of their career.

Last year, Ventura College (Calif.) introduced a voluntary mentoring program for its estimated 663 employees. It began with a series of six Friday afternoon workshops focusing on developing leadership skills. What separated this program from a professional development course, though, was the direct involvement of Robin Calote, the college's president. During these workshops, Calote offered leadership assignments to a handful of participants, working directly with them to accomplish specific tasks or goals. For example, she asked the college librarian to co-chair the campus program review committee.

"I wound up sitting with the librarian and the other co-chair, debriefing issues that came up in the meetings and how they might handle them differently next time," says Calote. "I spent a lot of time with both of them and talked them through the entire process."

Besides the librarian, she mentored two others out of the 22 who attended the workshop series-a faculty member and a coordinator of an off-campus program. The program brought them to the surface, exposing their leadership potential.

Since then, the faculty member accepted an assistant dean position while the other two applied for management intern positions. Calote still works with them on an individual basis, giving advice as needed.

Because of its success, Ventura's mentoring program is now offered twice a year. Also, the format resembles mini-retreats where participants share problems and advice. One targets deans and department chairs while the other caters to the school's remaining employees.

The newest generation of workers are confi dent and don't always see themselves as needy learners. - Devon Scheef, The Learning Caf?

Calote credits the program for producing an incremental improvement in the campus culture. Fighting over resource allocation has decreased. Problem solving has become less hierarchical and more collaborative. The Draw-a-line-in-the-sand mentality is slowly fading.

"The number of people who were deans already and felt they didn't need any advice are slowly becoming the minority," says Calote, adding that the program offers a bonus-it's growing the school's applicant pool for leadership positions. "To me, that's a very positive outcome."

Few would argue that learning is a lifelong process. Most schools promote that concept and have adopted it as their mantra. So why are some administrators and faculty resistant to learning from their peers?

It could be a number of reasons, ranging from oversized egos to lack of opportunity. However, some organizations have redesigned their mentoring programs as reciprocal arrangements that encourage employees-regardless of age, experience, or status-to learn from each other.

The business world calls it reverse mentoring, an idea that hasn't yet made its way to the college campus. One aerospace company has been using this approach for the past several years, says Devon Scheef, co-founder of The Learning Caf?, a training and development consulting firm in Westlake Village, Calif., that services both universities and corporations.

After hiring many young electrical engineers, she says the company asked them to find unique ways to advise older engineers about new techniques, technology, or concepts. They developed a variety of programs, such as Adopt a Boomer, and held small information sessions called The View Outside Our Walls.

"Universities could absolutely do the same thing," Scheef says, adding that the traditional mentoring approach can also be problematic with millennials, or people born between 1978 and 2000. "This newest generation of workers are already confident [and] highly skilled, and [they] don't always see themselves as being needy learners."

One of the advantages of reverse mentoring is that it keeps tenured faculty or senior staff on their toes by encouraging them to question their classroom or business practices in search of better ideas. Sometimes, Scheef says, they may even be mentored by someone who is the same age of students enrolled in their course or attending their school. "It's an opportunity to help existing faculty to see the future more clearly and benefit from an infusion of new [ideas]," she adds.

Another successful mentoring program targets women and minorities in the sciences and engineering at Kansas State University, an institution with approximately 5,000 faculty and staff. Qualified faculty can apply for up to $6,000 a year to jumpstart research projects. But to get funding, they must identify a mentor at their school and propose a mentoring plan.

"We found the mentors themselves receive as much as the people they mentor," says Ruth Dyer, associate provost at the university in Manhattan, Kan. "Maybe they become re-energized by talking with someone who has new ideas and whom they can collaborate with."

The program was implemented back in the early 1990s with a grant from the Sloan Foundation, then was institutionalized in 2002. At that time, the school conducted a study of all faculty who had participated and were still employed at the school. Although the university had invested roughly $300,000 into the program, Dyer says 31 of the participants collectively received more than $30 million from external sources to proceed with their research-not to mention the number of articles they published in journals or presentations they conducted at national conferences, which all lend credibility and prestige to the university.

About six years ago, the school also added a mentoring component to its Big 12 Faculty Fellowship program where selected teachers are awarded $2,500 to travel to other Big 12 schools to collaborate with faculty. But those who have been teaching at the university for less than two years can also pair up with an employee at another Big 12 school who may be working on a similar project. They can use their fellowship dollars to develop a relationship with that individual, learn more about their project, and exchange ideas.

Still, schools must be careful not to attach a stigma to mentoring, Dyer says, explaining that some employees falsely believe that such programs target poor performers and offer little more than hand-holding.

"I see mentoring programs as having extra value for both the mentees and mentors," says Dyer. "It can really make a huge difference in the success of both parties."

'We found the mentors themselves receive as much as the people they mentor.' -Ruth Dyer, Kansas State University

Besides professional growth, mentoring can also create a close-knit employee community, which in turn strengthens a school's recruitment and retention efforts.

Consider Southwestern University (Texas), which launched a mentoring program in 2004 for all new hires, says Elma Benavides, associate vice president of human resources.

During a two-hour workshop, volunteer mentors are trained to familiarize new employees with the university's culture, processes, operations, and people. The school frequently pairs people from different departments to offer a broader perspective about how the university functions. Benavides explains that mentoring relationships generally last three months and then evolve into long-lasting friendships.

"Staff really do have a stronger sense of knowing each other," she says, adding that the program is monitored by the school's staff affairs council. "It's important [for employees] to adhere to the core values of the institution. [This] is a pretty good way to get the ball going and to make it real."

But there are other reasons to mentor. Realize that you're hiring people today who will perform jobs that don't even exist, use technology that hasn't been invented, and solve problems that haven't yet occurred. Will your employees be ready? Will they possess the skills needed to perform such jobs?

Dianne Van Hook is ensuring that her 500 employees can adapt to higher education's rapidly changing environment. As superintendent of the Santa Clarita Community College District and president of the district's College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., she says the school has built its culture around employee learning opportunities.

Besides in-house training, job shadowing, sabbaticals, flex days for workshops, and its institute for teaching and learning, the college created a mentoring program. Every semester, employees apply for a mentoring partnership, indicating what types of skills or knowledge they want to acquire. So far, almost one-third of the school's 500 employees have participated, she says.

Each pair sets its own rules and boundaries. Van Hook also mentors staff and cites many success stories related to the program and other professional development activities. For example, a part-time program advisor became dean of new programs. Likewise, the former director of physical services, a low-level position in business operations, is now the school's chief business officer.

Considering the nationwide talent shortage and College of the Canyons' rapid growth-its student population jumped from 3,800 in 1988 to more than 20,000 this year-mentoring activities are the best way it can prepare for what lies ahead. Van Hook says that 40 percent of its classified staff have been promoted over the last four years and that five out of the six deans hired since 2003 have been internal promotions.

"You can't expect people to initiate new things if they don't initiate new things in themselves," she says. "Colleges must develop mentoring and learning opportunities that are infused in the daily fabric of their college activities, or they will die on the vine."

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in covering HR issues.