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Professional Opinion

Universities expand ways how a mentor can coach a mentee

How higher education can advance knowledge sharing and skill development
University Business, July 2017

Over the past decade, some higher education institutions have introduced the next generation of mentoring practices to expand development opportunities to more of their employees, integrate the these initiatives into existing programs, and offer reverse and lateral learning across campus.

Consider, for example, Wake Forest University in North Carolina, which launched a mentoring resource center roughly seven years ago. The center’s director, Allison E. McWilliams, says she doesn’t match people, run any programs, or even maintain a database of mentors and mentees.

Instead, she serves as an in-house consultant for department heads and others who want to develop or tweak existing mentoring programs. “We really manage a centralized 
office that operates a decentralized model of mentoring,” she says.

“We work with people around campus, help them plan their program, manage it, find mentors, and match them. Ultimately, someone in each of those departments has to own those programs.” As employees become more entrepreneurial about their career path, mentoring is a critical part of professional growth.

But since mentoring programs are high-resource initiatives, not all schools or departments offer them. Still, McWilliams says, schools need to better equip employees to effectively seek out people to serve as mentors.

Up, down and across

Other schools add mentoring opportunities to leadership programs.

Since 2011, Pace University in New York has offered a three-tier leadership development program that includes a mentoring component. Participants in the top tier, who represent the school’s leaders, choose a mentor for 18 months from the president’s operations committee.

Mid-level managers in tier two select a mentor for one year from tier one graduates or the school’s management council. Those in tier three—nonmanagerial—pick their mentor for nine months from the tier two graduates.

“We hear from graduates that this is one of the best aspects of the program,” says Susan Donahue, Pace’s director of organizational learning and development. “But they can’t pick someone from their functional area; they need to have an outside perspective.”

Traditionally, mentoring has been a way for employees to learn from individuals occupying higher-level positions.

At Frostburg State University in Maryland, lecturer Ryan Kentrus is researching the impact of reverse mentoring, where junior staff mentors mid-level or senior executives on a variety of topics such as technology, workplace practices or generational insights.

He suspects the results will be positive and hopes to introduce such opportunities to all university employees.

Meanwhile, Texas Woman’s University does both reverse and lateral mentoring for its 2,000 employees. The school’s 13-year-old mentoring program is aimed at new hires, says Melissa Ozuna Dillon, manager of employee development and communication. The university hires approximately 300 people each year.

Dillon assigns each a volunteer mentor that newcomers meet at lunch during their orientation. While these relationships are designated for one year, at least half continue beyond that time frame, she says. But it’s the reverse and lateral mentoring opportunities—similar to cross-training  programs—that make this program special.

“Sometimes we’ll have someone from facilities—our custodians or groundskeeper—mentor someone in an administration job,” she says. “It helps administrators to learn what it takes to keep the campus together, keep it clean and beautiful.”  

Time for a change

By expanding mentorships in multiple directions, schools can advance knowledge-sharing and skill development, minimize learning curves, and enhance institutional knowledge. Since your school is in the business of providing educational opportunities, why not apply your expert services to your own workforce?      


Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

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