Why You Need Mentoring and Mentoring Needs YouPosted: May 3, 2016
When we asked for possible topics as part of our 100th anniversary post, one of our readers suggested mentoring. Characterizing AAM’s page on mentoring as “sad,” she rightly called us out for mentioning mentoring often enough, but never really explaining it. So here goes.
First, if you care, mentoring is a gerund–meaning a verb form that functions as noun– and usually refers to advice or training offered by the old to the young. Second, we believe in it. And we think for the museum world in particular, mentoring should not be a generational thing. Too many of us think of being mentored as something museum Boomers should be doing for museum Millennials. While that’s a good idea, we would like to suggest that you don’t have to be a certain age to be mentored. Everybody needs one, likely more than one over the course of a career. And before we go any further, here is what mentoring is not: It’s not therapy. If you need a therapist, we hope you find one. And your mentor is not going to get you a job. That’s not a mentor’s job. Of course that may happen organically because of your mentor, but that’s not why you have one. You have a mentor so you can check in, talk, and receive counsel from someone who’s wiser, smarter, and more experienced than you are.
While it can and should be supported by graduate programs, employers, and service organizations, mentoring is an individual thing. You find them. You connect with them. Mentors don’t have to be your friends, and it’s often better if they’re not. They need to be folks, whether in the museum field or not, who can offer clear-headed career advice and a strategic 30,000-foot view of the profession.
And how do you get one? Don’t be shy. And don’t think if your graduate school professor is your mentor for a year or two, that she needs to be your mentor for life. Mentors change, just as you will. If you meet someone at a conference, seminar or workshop who seems smart, imaginative, and approachable, do not hesitate to ask them if mentoring is something they do. If the answer is yes, ask if they would mind if you called for an interview. If that goes well, you may want to set up quarterly calls, email exchanges, Skype, whatever works for you. But mentoring isn’t a once-a-year check in. You need regular contact to build trust in order for your mentor to keep pace with your career narrative.
If you and your potential mentor live in the same area, you may want to meet regularly face-to-face. And speaking of your local area, whether it’s a major city or a rural area, if there is someone you’ve admired from afar, you should feel free to contact them as well. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? They politely say they’re too busy? And we want to underscore that while this is traditionally the old(er) offering advice to the young(er), it doesn’t have to be that way. If there is a young, dynamic leader with a skillset different from your Boomer collection of talents, approach them.
What should museums or heritage organizations or service organizations do about mentoring? They should support it. It’s part of good leadership. In larger organizations it’s possible to offer internal mentoring opportunities. These have the advantage of access, but you may find yourself paired with someone who doesn’t work for you. Again, don’t be shy. If it’s not working, say so. On the other hand, some organizations offer one-to-one leadership training for their department heads that may come with mentoring. Or, if you’re in a less urban area, don’t forget about the Chamber of Commerce. It frequently offers leadership training and may also have opportunities for mentoring. And we support our reader in believing that AAM and AASLH should take a robust stance on mentoring, particularly at their annual meetings where the number of meet and greets is exponential.
We are always advising readers to read outside of the museum world. So here are some great mentoring pieces. If you’re not a Harvard Business Review reader, you should be. Read this piece: Demystifying Mentoring or this one Mentoring in a Hypercompetitive World. If you are a museum curator, the Association of Art Museum Curators, AAMC, has a formal mentoring program. In addition, the Center for Curatorial Leadership developed a Diversity Mentoring Initiative, and don’t forget about Museum Hue. In its role to increase diversity in operations, governance and staffing, it too provides mentoring opportunities. Last, we’d like to point to the UK’s museum organizations. We recommend these pages: Resources for Museum Mentors and Professional Development and Mentoring. Finally, there are people like Linda Norris who pay it forward by mentoring.
In closing, not everyone prospers in a mentoring situation. So know what you need. In order to work, mentoring means time, and a level of self-awareness so you understand enough about yourself to ask questions that are helpful. Don’t ask for a mentor if you can’t make the time to meet with one. Conversely, you may want to think about your life, if you know you need a mentor, but can’t find the time to talk with someone, perhaps something needs to change.