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November 2003 - Mentoring?

I have been floating the idea of developing a mentoring system within the Society for some time now. To this end the web-site directory authority to publish form asks the question "Are you prepared to be a mentor?" Of the 45% of members who have returned their authority, 40% have indicated they are prepared to serve as a mentor. It is time to explore the idea and to determine how best to implement such a programme for the Society - if indeed the Society perceives it to be a worthwhile endeavour.

Mentoring is something of a buzzword in business today but it is by no means a new concept. The word comes from Greek mythology. Ulysses, before setting out on an epic voyage, entrusted his son to the care and protection of his old and trusted friend Mentor.

A brief survey of the internet yielded two dominant applications of mentoring. The most prevalent was in the corporate world where it is used as a tool to promote highfliers through the ranks. The other application was to enhance opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. All the examples had in common a relationship where a more experienced colleague provided guidance and advice to a less experienced, often new member of the team

I suspect we have all experienced mentoring in some shape or other whether it be a group of students getting together to study and check each others knowledge base; tutorial sessions at University; buddying when first starting work; phoning someone we respect to discuss to problem or idea. All these situations embody the concept of mentoring - sharing experience and having the opportunity to challenge those more experienced than ourselves. The regular workshops we WA members participated in leading up to sitting CRFS last year made the whole process an enriching and enjoyable process.

We should not compare ourselves to corporate highfliers but I believe a mentoring scheme has much to offer the Society. I know from my own experience that I have often wished there were someone I could consult about issues I was struggling with - both scientific and managerial. Turning our theoretical knowledge into practical experience is a time consuming process; mentoring is a way of perhaps hastening that transition for new graduates joining the profession. Many members work in sole charge situations with very little support; they could benefit by having access to a mentor in a larger lab. Many of us have made the transition from scientist to manager with very little training and often even less support; mentoring could be a real help in these situations. Many labs are presently struggling to deal with the pressures of accreditation; mentoring could help here. CRFS? Mentoring is most definitely of help here. There have been few changes in the upper echelons of the Society since its inception and there is a need for the younger members to assert themselves and assume responsibility for the future of the Society; mentoring could be a very powerful tool in achieving this. Our strength as an organisation depends on the depth of experience we can develop.

I suspect that many of us practice mentoring informally and no doubt many will say that is enough. I beg to differ here. Any informal process is hit and miss. Do those who would derive most benefit get the opportunity? Neither do informal arrangements provide support to the mentor. Not everybody will be a good mentor - it takes special skills to fill the role effectively and I suspect many mentors will need mentoring. Informal mentoring could also lead to development in different directions that may not always reflect the vision of the Society.

Mentoring puts a not inconsiderable load on both the mentor and the mentee. Effective mentoring depends on brutal honesty and absolute trust between the two parties. There must, therefore, be some groundrules in place. The mentor needs to know that the commitment is made for a finite period of time if he/she is to actively fill the role. There will come a point where the mentor has provided all he/she is capable of providing and the needs of the mentee will change. Some relationships will simply not get off the ground. There must be a no fault dissolution option available where the two parties can sever the relationship, hopefully as friends. There will be a steep learning curve for mentor and mentee. Formalisation of the process is aimed at protecting relationships and providing support.

Formalisation of the process would also hopefully smooth the introduction phase for new members of the Society. I know when I first joined, it took me quite a while to get to know the luminaries of the Society - it was reticence on my part, I hasten to add, rather than difficulties they placed in the way.

How can we put such a scheme into place? Clearly there is a need to marry a mentor up with a mentee. Free choice may not be the best for the mentor who tries to help everyone who asks. This is not an easy undertaking and is probably the most difficult aspect of getting a programme running. The Executive needs to be 100% behind the scheme and if necessary provide resources to it. It is clearly desirable to have face to face meetings rather than telephone or e-mail exchanges but the geographical dispersion of the membership means face to face meetings will be infrequent for many. Regular exchanges could be by e-mail or phone with time set aside at the ASM for face to face meetings and discussions.

If we are to develop a process, it must above all else be responsive to the needs of the members. I have a list of members prepared to take on the role of mentor. The next step in developing this idea is to find out how many members would like to see a system in place, what they would like to achieve from such a system and how they would like to see it work. Without being prepared to put a lot of effort into setting it up properly, we run the risk of bad experiences achieving the opposite outcome from what we hope. There are most definitely risks associated with this initiative but they are manageable with proper planning. E-mail me your thoughts - considered and spontaneous! I would particularly like to hear from those with experience of a mentoring process - both good I would particularly like to hear from those with those of you reading this who have had experience of a mentoring process - both good experiences and bad - whether members of our Society or not. I will collate responses and post them next month. (mailto:kevin.gain@health.wa.gov.au)

If the feedback is positive then I would like to see something concrete developed by the time of the Sydney meeting. If feedback is negative, or nonexistent, then there is no point developing the proposal. The future is in your hands - accept the challenge.


November, 2003




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