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October 26, 2006

Senate plenary session: South-Paul on mentoring

Mentoring, long recognized in the corporate world for its value as a stepping-stone to success, exists in varied forms at Pitt. Mentoring relationships are forged between faculty and their students as they collaborate on research; peer relationships between faculty members develop naturally within and beyond departments, and even outside the bounds of the University through relationships in shared professional circles. In addition to the formal and informal mentoring relationships that already thrive at Pitt, a voluntary pilot program has been launched to pair experienced Pitt faculty members with small groups of faculty newcomers in mentoring circles.

The University Senate’s fall plenary session, “Fostering Mentoring for Sustaining Organizational Vitality,” featured keynote speaker Jeannette South-Paul, chair of the Department of Family Medicine and a panel that included John Weidman of the School of Education as part of an afternoon focused on the many aspects of mentoring relationships.

(For more on the plenary session see related stories this issue).

“Being a mentor is the most effective way of extending one’s professional contributions. Even though it takes time, it’s the way we can regenerate ourselves for the next generation,” keynote speaker Jeannette South-Paul told fellow faculty members at the Oct. 19 Senate plenary on mentoring.

While important, mentoring is fraught with challenges. Some are based on differences between the mentor and protégé, demands on time, disparate priorities, the potential for destructive relationships that can exist and the simple fact that people sometimes get discouraged.

“Mentoring reflects the capacity to give yourself away,” she said, adding that mentorship is more than an acquisition of knowledge; rather, it is incorporating that knowledge in who you are and being able to share it.

South-Paul, chair of the Pitt medical school’s Department of Family Medicine, cited numerous studies, many from medicine, to illustrate the importance of mentors.

Medicine, along with education and management, all are cooperative rather than productive arts, she said, making them especially dependent on the quality of relationships within.

Cooperation is a theme in many different disciplines: “Just as medicine cooperates with the body’s natural tendency to heal … teaching also is a cooperation with the mind’s natural tendency to ascend to the truth, and those of us in management realize that management is cooperation with people’s natural tendency toward communities.”

And in higher education, although it is programs, not people, who are accredited, she noted, “Really, programs don’t exist. The only things that are real are humans and relationships between humans in these so-called programs. These relationships can either inhibit the process or they can facilitate learning,” she said.

Citing studies from nursing, South-Paul noted that mentoring has been found important for career progression, development of new investigators, empowering students to do better than they anticipated, expanding professional knowledge and growing in productivity. On an institutional level, it’s been found important for stability, cutting down on turnover, increasing continuity and enhancing professional socialization.

In the business community, mentoring is widely recognized as a way to gain a competitive edge, she said.

Drawing on sociologist Robert Merton’s “Matthew effect” (based on the Biblical passage found in Matthew 13:12 “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance”), the principle applies in higher education, she said. “If you went to a strong institution, you were more likely to get into a leading PhD program that would allow you to be exposed to superior teachers and superior facilities and that would then improve your competitiveness for getting grants and ultimately you would be able to do better award-winning research.” With regard to undergraduate education, “If we give more to these students, they would be able to achieve even more,” she said.

Among professionals, “not just in basic science or medicine, but in the community, those who are most successful had a good experience when it came to having a mentor,” she said. “Mentoring relationships are thought to be important in developing professional careers across the disciplines, whether we’re talking about basic science, education, business, law, medicine, nursing. In a multitude of careers there is no doubt that we need that person to walk with us and not leave us behind as they move ahead.”

While mentoring has been shown to be a powerful tool for recruiting, retaining and advancing students and faculty, when it comes to evaluations for advancement, interactive skills take a back seat to more easily quantifiable accomplishments. It’s simply easier to measure content rather than interpersonal skills, she said. “I think that’s where we’ve stumbled in higher education.”

When considering mentoring, potential difficulties must be kept in mind, South-Paul said. Mentors and mentees may have significant differences, whether it be ethnicity, culture, temperament or physical capabilities. Disabilities may make the partnership more challenging, as may differences in lifestyle choices and goals that vary from what the mentor did when he or she was in training.

Developing cross-cultural skills can help compensate for such differences. Such awareness is very important in mentoring women, South-Paul said. In one survey, “Nearly 80 percent of women and more than 95 percent of minority faculty said it wasn’t as important having a mentor who looked just like them as having a mentor, period,” she said. “If you didn’t have a like racial, ethnic or gender mentor, you still needed a mentor in order for you to be successful.”

Race and gender issues, while not insurmountable, do come into play. Women tend to prefer mentors who serve as role models. “If they have a choice, many women prefer a woman mentor,” she said.

But, South-Paul warned, while they may receive the psychosocial support they seek, they may be missing out on some of the informal networking and sponsorship. “That’s something for us who are women mentors to keep in mind. When we are mentoring women it’s important for us not just to give the psychosocial support they need, but to give them all those other networking skills and direction that are important to their advancement,” she said.

Racial and ethnic aspects are not as well studied as gender, but South-Paul said marginalized groups tend to be drawn to those racially similar, “who feel like they understand the journey a little bit better.”

She said African Americans are more likely to look beyond their own department or institution in search of a mentor who’s the best connection, adding that issue should be kept in mind as Pitt builds its faculty. “That increases the potential for them to be recruited away,” she said.

The tendency to seek someone of the same race or gender can lead to female or minority mentors spreading themselves thin among mentees. “Mentoring responsibility tends to be more extensive because they’re trying to divide themselves between more folks who are looking for guidance,” she said.

South-Paul compared the role of a mentor as sometimes similar to being a parent of persistent and needy children.

“You feel as if you’re getting asked again and again and again,” she said. “Sometimes there are disparate priorities: Your idea of service may not be your mentee’s idea of service or academics, you may have something you want to focus on at a time your mentee has something else on their mind. They may be looking for a type of prestige that you may not think is appropriate at this particular time in the relationship. And there’s always the question of compensation,” she said.

Like parents, mentors can offer a socialization process that can’t be found in a textbook: The mentees learn how to manage their careers and gain understanding of norms, values and expectations in their field. The relationship also can demonstrate the value of developing and maintaining a productive network of colleagues. “This is something we know is key to success and that our mentee may not know yet.”

When searching for a mentor, South-Paul said that identifying a good one begins with seeking out someone with a reputation, experience and a position that gives the mentee access to knowledge the mentee may benefit from. It’s also crucial to find someone who’s available, and often it’s advisable to seek references. “Talk to somebody else they’ve worked with and make sure that they’re really good to work with,” she advised.

Demographics also are a consideration in pairing members of a mentoring relationship: matching marrieds with marrieds, for instance, or similar situations or faiths, or those with children. “The pressures of being a parent while you are in school are very different from those who are footloose and fancy free,” she said.

And, one mentor may not be sufficient. “You are allowed to and encouraged to have more than one mentor,” South-Paul said, noting that separate mentors can be sought to fill different roles: to offer guidance on papers or as peer mentors, for example. They can be found within one’s institution or beyond, perhaps in professional society. “Mentors can fulfill different aspects of your career development,” she said.

A number of factors are crucial to developing a good mentoring relationship, South-Paul said. In addition to having good communication and interpersonal skills, mentors must be able to take initiative and help with problem solving. They also must be available. “ If you can never get to see your mentor, that person isn’t doing you much good,” South-Paul said.

Mentors provide both support and challenges as well as advice and a role model. “They also are your protector,” she said. By virtue of their experience, they often can foresee potential problems. “There are times when your mentor sees what is going on and is able to cue you into what is happening and help you avoid particular landmines that might either derail you personally or derail your career,” she said.

Mentors must remember they are not there to promote their own agenda. “Mentors should not be using the mentee as free labor when it does not benefit the mentee,” she said. The mentor should not take credit for what the mentee has done.

“And, you’re not there to make a clone. You’re there to help that mentee be the best that he or she can be and to advance perhaps out of your sphere.”

By the same token, protégés have responsibilities in the relationship as well. They must be serious, receptive to advice and counsel and communicate with their mentor. They also must be willing to set realistic, attainable goals and commit to achieving them. South-Paul said it is necessary for mentees to be prepared each time they meet with their mentor, “or the process is not productive.”

Mentees must take care not to avoid decision making and to ensure they don’t rely exclusively on the mentor. Mentees must guard against acquiescing when they don’t agree with a mentor and must be cautious not to overidealize the relationship, she said. They should commit to being punctual and to convey respect, to set agendas and follow through, to communicate and accept criticism.

In spite of the value of mentoring relationships, destructive relationships sometimes can develop. “If you’re in one of those you need to be able to realize what’s going on,” South-Paul said. Utilizing career development coach Janet Bickel’s “nine circles of mentor hell,” South-Paul warned mentees to watch for danger signs in order to extricate themselves should they find themselves in a destructive relationship.

The signs are:

• A mentor who seems to be a poor judge of the mentee’s potential;

• One who fails to define limits;

• One who fails to promote a mentee’s transition beyond how he or she can help that transition;

• A mentor who wants honorary authorship for everything the mentee touches whether he or she had anything to do with it or not;

• One who inappropriately praises or criticizes so that it’s impossible to discern what is accurate;

• The mentor who is furthering a political or sexual agenda;

• One who expects a protégé to defer at all times and perhaps even hand over accomplishments;

• One who is fostering a selective scientific agenda;

• One who is promoting unethical research.

In closing, South-Paul used an example from the 2004 Olympic women’s 4×100-meter relay. The American team was disqualified from the race when Marion Jones failed to pass the baton to Lauryn Williams within the handoff zone.

The relay is an illustration of multiple responsibilities — not only for one’s own training, but for responsibility to one’s teammates as well. “Success does not come to the single superstar,” South-Paul cautioned. “Success only comes if that superstar can work as a member of the team.”

As the senior member of the team, Jones got the blame. “What a lesson,” South-Paul said, adding that the runners’ individual accomplishments in other races didn’t matter, “because this was a team sport.”

Academia has its own version of passing the baton. To maintain a smoothly functioning team, South-Paul urged: Observe the rules; stay in your lane until the handoff; remember to pass the baton in the zone. Also, keep your eyes on the goal and make every race a win, no matter where you finish.

“These are the things that will ultimately translate into success,” South-Paul said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 5

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