Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Find Me a Match: What We Mean When We Talk About Mentoring

Frank L Baum – Library of Congress[1]alt source: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/oz/images/uc17.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=854060

Mentors and mentorship seem to be having a moment. From annual meetings where mentors and mentees meet up, to organizations dedicated to mentoring, talk of mentors is in the wind. But here’s a little secret: There are likely as many different ideas about mentorships as there are people, and that’s probably not a bad thing.

About a lifetime ago mentors were the province of business. They were invariably white men and they were there to help give their compatriots a leg up. Sometimes they knew a ton about business craft, sometimes they possessed a wealth of connections. Either way, they helped when paths diverged and choices had to be made. And because like follows like, more white men were mentored than anybody else.

I could be wrong, but 25 years ago, mentoring in the museum/heritage sector was in its infancy if it existed at all. It’s possible the museum field was late to the mentor party because just as it ignored leadership, it also ignored its trappings, preferring to let curators spring fully formed into the director’s office, as if careers dedicated to research and exhibitions prepared anyone for dealing with human nature writ large. It’s also possible the museum world’s mentorship reluctance was slow to evolve because it seemed “businesslike.” Museums didn’t want to be seen as businesses. They were different. And while the for-profit world isn’t perfect, far from it–there is an expectation in the B-Schools that everyone will lead, making the leadership skillset a component of every degree. So while business trained leaders, the museum and nonprofit world laid the groundwork for some epic 21st-century HR and leadership failures. But I digress.

Leadership and mentorship are halves of a coin. As a leader learning never stops, and mentorship allows you to pay it forward while continuing to learn. I am lucky enough to work at an institution that assigns new faculty and staff mentors. That means my new program leader will partner with another human who will guide her during her first year on campus. One of the myths about mentorship is that older, wiser folk counsel younger ones, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s about organizational or job experience. In those cases age doesn’t matter. Your mentor could be 32 and know your heritage organization inside out, and you could be pushing 50, vastly experienced, yet still need to learn your new organization’s DNA.

And that’s another mentorship myth: One person–the mentor–doesn’t do all the work while the other–the mentee waits for the magic to happen. Mentorships are two-way streets. If you’re the mentee, it helps if you spend time thinking deeply about your career plan, if you know where you want to go, but most importantly why. Your mentor can help hone your plan, point out places it may be unreasonable or suggest side roads that help you achieve your goals in a different way. Think Glinda the Good Witch. (“You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”)

And speaking of Glinda, here’s another mentor thought: Women need mentors now more than ever. In a workplace like the museum world, that’s 50.1-percent female, with a population whose jobs were hard hit by COVID, women need the alliances mentorships provide, particularly since a percentage of women may continue to work remotely. While remote work has its advantages–there is no trailing partner if one of you can work remotely, and it often makes child and elder care issues easier–it lacks the social networks of an office environment. It’s harder to make professional contacts over Zoom than it is around the coffee machine. And bottom line? Studies tell us that people in the mentor equation, whether mentor or mentee, feel empowered, have more confidence, and not surprisingly, get promoted more often than the un-mentored.

So…if you want a mentor:

  • Remember, it’s not about age, but it is about compatibility.
  • Mentoring doesn’t have to be about your entire career plan. You can be mentored around a specific skill.
  • Be clear about your goals and your career plan. Sometimes mentorships begin around transition–you hope to move up or out–and want guidance as you take the next step.
  • Asking someone you know to mentor you is clearly different from asking someone you don’t know: Either way be respectful of their time. Begin with a brief meeting and the opportunity to talk. See how things play out. If after meeting more than once, this is a person you still trust and admire, and the feeling seems to be mutual, ask about a mentor/mentee relationship.
  • Self reflection is key. Do the work ahead of your mentor meetings so you know the questions you want to focus on.

If you’re asked to be a mentor:

  • Say thank you. Acknowledge the courage it takes to approach someone a chapter or two ahead of you in the museum world, not to mention it’s an honor to be singled out for your wisdom and decision making.
  • Mentees take time. Be clear in your own mind about the time you have to give. You may want to advise on one question–learning to speak up in meetings, for example– and see how the mentor relationship goes before committing to a full mentorship.
  • Think about the skills you’re willing to help with. Do your potential mentor’s needs and your skills match?
  • A mentorship isn’t a lifetime commitment. Know when to kick your mentee out of the nest.

For both mentors and mentees: Think outside the box. We’re all more comfortable with people we think we know, and sometimes that’s just what we need, but we learn more (and more quickly) from those whose life experiences are different from ours. And don’t forget to be an active listener. Mentorship isn’t about fixing someone’s career so much as holding up a mirror to help your mentee reflect on the right questions. (“Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you’re on earth, the more experience you are sure to get.” The Wizard of Oz.)

Stay well, stay cool, and depending on where you are, stay dry.

Joan Baldwin



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