Sharing the secrets to success
Whether it’s finding motivation at work, sorting out a personal problem or getting ahead in your career, having a mentor may be the difference between stagnation and success.
Anyone with a successful career would often say there have been important people along the way to help them get where they are: guides, listeners and human lighthouses who in one way or another have mentored them through their lifelong journey.
But to really understand the modern mentor-mentee relationship, we need to shake out some of the old preconceptions which might have us thinking of apprentices or protégés. A modern mentor is not necessarily in the same field of work, they are not necessarily older or more senior than their mentee and the relationship is rarely mandated by a workplace or learning institution.
The modern day mentor–mentee rapport is increasingly becoming a combination of professional and personal relationships, and whether you’re using it for professional, educational or personal means, having a mentor is considered an indispensable part of success.
Two are better than one
The University of Canberra’s Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Strategy, Peter Radoll, is a firm believer in having a mentor – and perhaps more than one.
“I have had a few mentors at any one time and I guess I’ve learned over the years that some are better at giving certain kinds of advice than others,” Peter says.
“I think seeking advice from a mentor is one of those strategies successful people have, and there is really no penalty in work or life from getting a little help along the way.
“I had one mentor early on in my career. I have to admit I, and everyone else, thought he was tough. But I persisted and we eventually struck up a professional relationship. He provided advice and even took it on himself to raise money for a project I was trying to get started.”
Peter counts University of Canberra Chancellor Tom Calma AO among his mentors, “though since returning to work at the University of Canberra, I have spoken with him a little less about professional issues,” he laughs.
A descendant of the Anaiwan people of New South Wales, Peter is working to bring together areas of Indigenous education, research, employment and student engagement at the University. In addition to leading the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Strategy, he also leads the Ngunnawal Centre and co-leads the University’s Collaborative Indigenous Research Initiative.
Peter says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can benefit from strong role models regardless of the stage of life they are at.
“Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face many negative messages and stereotyping while they are growing up,” he says. “People hear others telling them how they won’t amount to anything or that they can’t succeed. Having someone out there who can see their potential and who can say to them, ‘You can do it, just get out there and give it a go’, that can be enough to set them on the path to success.”
Peter is a mentor to many Indigenous people. Among his current mentees is Indigenous woman Karlie Noon, whose interest in mathematics and science and has led her to examine Indigenous astronomy.
“I have been privileged to work with students and to pass on advice to them that I hope they’ve found useful and uplifting,” he says. “Karlie is one such student, and I look at what she’s doing and I’m immensely proud. She’s mentoring Indigenous kids with the CSIRO and she’s found a new passion in astronomy from Indigenous perspectives as well.”
The sharing of wisdom
Australian poet and professor of writing at the University Paul Hetherington challenges the preconception that mentors share their wisdom and mentees are the ones that learn.
Paul is well-known in creative writing circles for being a mentor. But although he has mentored a variety of people in the last three decades at the National Library of Australia and the University, he says he’s found many of his mentees just as valuable to his own growth.
“Mentoring is mainly a case of being sufficiently attuned to others to notice when you might be able to be of some help, and also being willing to dedicate a little time to such relationships,” he says.
“It might be that you employ a staff member and realise they would benefit from some ongoing advice and nurturing, or perhaps you begin a project and notice that there are people who may be interested in it who have the potential to learn a lot from participating.
“I always learn a great deal from mentoring other people, not least because everyone I have mentored has had knowledge and skills I don't possess. I remember one staff member at the library who very quickly turned the table and I found she taught me a great deal.”
Mentoring in a creative field such as writing can be difficult, Paul says, highlighting that the personal nature of some people’s work doesn’t lend itself to criticism.
“It can be a somewhat delicate process,” he says. “People who are making creative work are often deeply invested in it in a very immediate and personal way. The success of a mentoring relationship in a creative field can depend on whether there's real sympathy and trust between the people involved. When it does work, it can be marvellous. I guess that's true of many mentoring relationships, wherever they take place.”
Paul says sparking a relationship with a new mentor can be as simple as starting a conversation with someone in your own field and being open to learning from them.
“The best advice I could pass on to people who are looking for a mentor is to keep at it. Try to find a person who is both canny and generous. I think mentors can often be identified through conversation – if you are able to talk to someone in a satisfying way, then you are likely to be able to learn something from them.”
Walking the same path
Mentors can be more beneficial in some fields than others – mental health nursing to name one.
Such a high-intensity and confronting field of work can rattle even the most dedicated professional, which is why the University and ACT Health work in conjunction to prepare people in this area. A pathway program has been running for the last 15 years and is available to postgraduate students wanting to work for the ACT Government’s Mental Health, Justice Health and Drug and Alcohol Services program.
Donna Hodgson is the Mental Health Nursing Education Programs Coordinator and is employed on a sessional basis at the University. She says students from various backgrounds are utilising the program.
“We have students who have just started out as nurses and who want to specialise in mental health,” Donna says.
“Some are already working in the field but they require more knowledge and others have been nurses for a long time and are keen to start working in this space.
“Each student is assigned a supervisor who helps them through their postgraduate study, but when they are doing a placement they often seek out their mentors for insights and perspective, and that’s what they value the most.”
Since its inception, the course has seen hundreds of nurses acquire specialist skills to work in mental health roles. Donna says the role of mentors transcends the program, and they are important in providing personal, unique feedback to the students and helping build resilience.
“I know, as a former mentor to many of these students, that we give them guidance and occasionally direction,” she says. “We tell them things like, ‘What I see in you is…’, or, ‘I can imagine you working at…’. We let them know how far they’ve come. We often get tears and that’s OK – it’s all part of the process.
“We share stories and experiences including from other past students. I’ve found it’s a positive thing to ensure our students know they’re not alone on this journey – other people have been through it before and they’ve found their way.”
Nicola Champion is one of many students currently using the program. Nicola has worked as a nurse for 30 years but she would like to specialise in mental health.
“While I’ve had program or service appointed mentors and clinical supervisors before, I found that finding colleagues outside the program with whom I can discuss practice or professional development issues has been really helpful,” Nicola says.
“My fellow students and I meet every month or so for horizontal mentoring. We share some of our experiences in a safe space. That’s probably one of the most rewarding mentoring experiences and when we take a break, I really miss it.”
Donna and Nicola agreed that often a mentor–mentee relationship isn’t all about the mentor providing a solution, but guiding the mentee in the right direction. “Often talking through the problem or issue helps you come to your own conclusion,” Nicola says.
“Thrashing out the problem and having someone there who can ask open questions can lead you straight to the knowledge that you’ve had the answer all along. A good mentor answers your needs without imposing a right or wrong approach. They help pull apart the issue and that’s what I love about it.”
Enter the matchmakers
Setting out to find a mentor is about more than just locating someone with seniority in your industry or at a place you’d like to work.
According to the founder of a new online company that is helping people find their ideal mentor, Tim McKay, this is a relationship that requires depth and a lot of common interests.
“Mentors and mentees need to have a connection,” Tim says. “It’s a relationship that requires a level of trust and finding that person that you can connect with at multiple levels can be difficult.”
Tim, along with fellow UC alumna Xharmagne Carandang, created OK RDY to connect aspiring mentees with mentors in their desired industry. But the concept behind OK RDY goes well beyond basic details like job titles.
“We’ve created a program more like online dating than a traditional job-seeking service,” Tim says. “We take details from applicants like their personal interests, causes they support, social passions and past experience, and match them with mentors who share similar characteristics.”
OK RDY is preparing to launch a pilot project linking universities and major technology and information technology companies with graduates and jobseekers.
The program connects people seeking a mentor with those willing to take on a mentee and gives them a private space to chat online, allowing them to build their relationship and even share information about their industry and employer. The aim is to ensure prospective employees and the company they want to work at are a good fit.
Tim says it’s also a way for skilled staff to volunteer their time and expertise, and to be recognised for it.
“I was surprised at how much unrecognised volunteering happens at workplaces, and mentoring is one of those roles that can be overlooked by managers or the boss,” he says. ”Our program provides our industry partners with data about how much their staff are doing to inspire and upskill the next generation.
“We want to ensure that people launching into a new career are kept abreast of changes that may be happening or new trends that someone already at work would know inherently. It’s not about laying out a defined pathway for the mentee, it’s more like knowing the field and helping them avoid some of the pitfalls through experience.”
Tim McKay and Xharmagne Carandang from OK RDY share their top mentoring tips:
- A mentor is not a coach
In mentorships, it’s generally up to the mentee to drive the relationship and leverage the opportunity to learn from someone with unique industry knowledge.
- Setting expectations
It’s important to define the initial purpose of the mentorship relationship and not simply ask for a job. Seek advice on entering an industry, career pathways or growing your professional profile.
- Mutual sharing
Identifying aspirations can help outline a road map for mentees, but it’s equally important for a mentor to talk about their own journey. This reflection is often beneficial to both parties.
Mentors are busy people volunteering their time, so be prepared before a meeting. This goes both ways and requires genuine engagement, so don’t try to cram in a mentee between your next meeting and lunch.
- Ask the big questions
Rather than simply accepting that someone wants a career in your industry, ask and understand “why?” or “what?” to help tease out what the next steps should be.
- Diversify your portfolio
Like most things, it’s not a good idea to keep all your eggs in one basket. Cultivating multiple mentorships can lead to new approaches to old problems – you never know where the next opportunity is waiting.
Words by Marcus Butler