Open the door to new vistas

September 21, 2007

A mentor can give you vital perspective on your work by assessing your new ideas and challenging old ones. But you will need to be able to take criticism and use it constructively, says Harriet Swain.

Phew! You have managed to secure the pro vice-chancellor as your mentor so at least you can expect a career leg-up, even if you clearly know twice as much as he does. A pat on the head for seeing it as a two-way process. But forget the career leg-up slant.

A good mentor should be open to the professional learning that comes from contact with a newcomer, says Bryan Cunningham, lecturer in education at the Institute of Education, so you should not be too tentative about sharing your own ideas and expertise.

On the other hand, it is no good having a mentor for whom you have little respect. Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, says you need to choose one who will challenge you rather than solely being supportive and sympathetic.

Do not assume that a vice-chancellor or pro vice-chancellor will be the ideal mentor to help you up the career ladder. While this might be the case, it could also work against you if that person suddenly moves to a different role or part of the sector where he or she does not have the kind of influence that will be any use to you.

"A mentor is not a door-opener, but more someone who can equip you to open the doors yourself," says Wooldridge. In some cases, this will mean the best mentor is someone outside higher education who may bring a different perspective.

Wooldridge says that once you have found a mentor you should agree an informal contract, covering the kind of agenda you will be working through and the issues where you think you will need support.

David Clutterbuck, senior partner at mentoring specialists Clutterbuck Associates and visiting professor in coaching and mentoring at Sheffield Hallam University, says the role of a mentee changes as the relationship develops.

First, you need to have some kind of sense of what you want to change in your circumstances. Do not be too specific, such as aiming for a particular job or contract. Rather, you need a general sense of purpose.

Then, you need to articulate your aims clearly to your mentor, using specific examples of what you have done and what you have learnt from it rather than vague statements of past achievement.

You need to explain your thinking in areas that you want to develop further and be prepared to admit to things that have gone less well. You must also put the effort in to make progress. "Mentors get bored very quickly with those who talk a lot but don't act," says Clutterbuck.

Steve Watson, British Heart Foundation professor at Birmingham University, who has won an award for mentoring, says good mentees will be realistic about their abilities, will know where they want to be in five or ten years' time and are decisive. "I can only give advice, but they make the decisions," he says.

Over time, as a mentee you will become more experienced in how to prepare effectively for a mentoring session and reflect on it afterwards. You will also be playing more of a role in helping your mentor.

"Although a mentor asks most of the questions, as a mentee it also helps if you can ask good questions as well," says Clutterbuck. "It is about having the confidence in the mentor and in yourself and in the relationship to be honest in what you say." He argues that being prepared to be challenged and to challenge back raises the quality of the dialogue.

Cunningham says that mentors should feel comfortable about offering constructive criticism. "Mentors who come to feel that the guidance and criticism they are offering is being routinely rejected, or reacted to in a highly defensive way, will often stop bothering to offer their views and will tend to give extremely bland feedback on performance." This does not mean that you should soak up criticism unquestioningly, but you should be prepared to explore it.

And be polite. Observing simple courtesies such as thanking mentors for taking on the role, saying please, telling them you have enjoyed a meeting or found their advice valuable are important. Mentors are often very busy, and their expertise is in high demand. Do not take their availability for granted, Cunningham says.

Towards the end of the relationship, mentees tend to become much more confident about what they want from the mentoring process and can therefore take a more active part in managing it.

You should not be afraid of doing so, says Clutterbuck. You should also find that you have become better, via the feedback process, at applying critical thinking to your work of your own accord.

Wooldridge advises reviewing the quality of the mentoring process as often as you can, looking at its usefulness and relevance and setting milestones to measure progress.

Clutterbuck suggests that the first such review should happen after the first two meetings at the latest - so that if it isn't going well you can establish quickly what the problem is and how to resolve it.

If, however, the relationship turns out to be a productive one, there can be a danger of becoming over-dependent on it, says Clutterbuck. He suggests you should be prepared to end it before you feel entirely ready - after two years at the latest - but end it much earlier if it is not working, otherwise you will be wasting your mentor's time.

Wooldridge suggests agreeing an exit strategy at the outset "so that you can say goodbye to your mentor in a civilised way if it really is not working out to your advantage" - particularly if it is the pro vice-chancellor.

More information

Bryan Cunningham, "All the Right Features: Towards an Architecture for Mentoring in Colleges", Journal of Education for Teaching , Vol 33, No 1

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education,

Clutterbuck Associates, provider of mentoring and coaching support,


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