21st Century Mentoring: A New Take on an Old Tradition

President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC)delivered this keynote address, titled “21st Century Mentoring: A New Take on an Old Tradition” and delivered in Women Administrators in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.

We all in our own way represent what I will call enlightened women of the 21st century. Women who feel free to make our own choices and obligated to take personal responsibility for them. Women who understand and are willing to accommodate to the sacrifices and tradeoffs that often come with those choices. And women who have risen through the ranks of higher education because we have earned our places there, not because our institutions need to even the scorecard.

Standing here today, I cannot help but think back to an era not so long ago when women like us might have bonded through the shared experience of inequality…and become energized by the prospect of breaking down the barriers of gender discrimination. Those were then real issues for women everywhere; and still are even today in many parts of the world.

But now, several decades later, it is truly an exciting time to be a woman in higher education here in the United States. To be sure, we have opened many doors and taken our places at many tables that were once considered to be for men only.

Just think. Over the last 20 years, the percentage of women who serve as college and university presidents has risen from just below 10% to nearly 25%…breaking through to the top in some of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world. The University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Brown, Syracuse, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Princeton, University of Michigan, University of Miami, and Harvard.

It’s also becoming far more common to see women serving as provosts, vice-provosts, deans, and academic department heads, as well as chief financial and operating officers.

Granted. There is still a ways to go, and undoubtedly a few barriers left to hurtle, as we pull our chairs up to the management table. But we are now becoming far better positioned to do so.

Gail Evans, a true pioneer for women in management, contends that we initially choose our seats according to what we believe about ourselves. Women who know they belong inevitably sit at the front of the table, while those who are not so sure end up on the periphery. Men on the other hand see an open seat and simply take it.

Virginia Woolf took this analogy even further when she wrote that it’s not enough to merely take our place at the table. We must instead be prepared to create it…and once we have, to make it work for us.

Indeed, to hurtle any remaining barriers, we must not only learn how to participate in, but also how to thrive in, and ultimately lead in organizations that are infinitely more collaborative…with boundaries that are more fluid and dynamic…and co-workers who are more diverse than ever.

And as women, I believe that we are actually wired to meet that challenge….given the natural instincts, real life experience, and well-developed skills we can all call upon to shape the places we create in the newly cooperative, less hierarchical, and more unpredictable workplace of the 21st century.

So what must we do to invent a future that takes us where we want to be?

I would propose that it’s time to embrace a new vision for leadership. One that is based not merely on gender; but rather on ability and character; not simply on parity; but rather on inclusiveness and collaboration. And one that empowers us to control our own destiny rather than leaving it in somebody else’s hands.
And perhaps the best way to begin charting that course is to take a new look at that age-old practice known as mentoring.

The term itself can be traced back to the myth of Mentor, from the three-thousand-year-old poem The Odyssey. The story goes that when Odysseus, King of Ithaca, set off for the Trojan War, he entrusted his kingdom and his family to his servant and advisor, Mentor.

Having earned this trust, Mentor served as a role model and wise counselor to the king’s young son, Telemachus, who in turn became his apprentice and disciple. So it’s no wonder that the term “mentoring” often conjures the all too familiar image of an exalted senior leader anointing his protégé…a younger version of himself to groom for certain ascension within the organization.

In fact, that’s a good description of old school mentoring – a relationship that invariably relied on chemistry and cronyism…protection and promotion. Unfortunately, it also precluded many a talented woman from receiving the benefits of good advice.

Why? Because for many years, men maintained the upper hand of authority in most organizations…which included carefully controlling access to the “good old boys club.” Of course, without the password, women had no other choice but to work harder and longer to get noticed, and therefore, ahead.

I have always been the first woman to step into every single management position I have held over the years. Now while intelligence, academic credentials, and talent had a lot to do with getting my foot in the door, I had to put in many more hours and expend far more energy than my male counterparts to open that door all the way. And although I attracted a few mentors along the path, nearly all of them were men.

Even now, when women have succeeded in breaking down the door in professions like higher education, there are still relatively few of us among the “been there, done that” generation.

It stands to reason then that the old school paradigm — which encourages senior executives to mentor junior protégés who are just like them — cannot possibly work well for women…because there are simply not enough seasoned female leaders to go around.

That’s why we are quickly rewriting the script and changing the rules, to fashion a new twist on an old theme. One that makes mentoring a far more organized and intentional activity, based on commitment rather than connection…personal development rather than professional authority…and learning rather than largesse.
To put it simply…getting ahead in today’s knowledge economy is no longer about who you know…it’s about what you know and how well you can use it.

So having many mentors to show you the ropes is far more beneficial than having just one to hold them up for you. Likewise, these individuals can be anyone, male or female…at anytime throughout your career life…and from anywhere in or out of the organization.

It’s really more about developing a mentoring mindset than a mentoring relationship…a way of thinking that makes it possible to gather information from and explore ideas with those around us, no matter who they are…within the context of a lifelong learning experience that is always mutually beneficial.

For mentees this more contemporary mindset affords an opportunity to hone valuable skills; build a broader and deeper network; obtain critical feedback; and gain visible leadership experience. For mentors, it offers all of the same perks, with one additional benefit — a unique chance to reinvest the intellectual capital that has been invested in you.

And for organizations, it increases retention rates and reduces stress…improves morale and job satisfaction… supports effective leadership development…and produces stronger and more interdependent teams. Even more important though, it allows talented people of all kinds…not just the favored few…to move ahead by creating what leadership consultant Lois Zachary calls an organizational culture of mentoring.

This culture lays the foundation for mentoring as an integral component of the professional development process….while at the same time facilitating multiple learning scenarios — both formal and informal — and establishing a basis upon which to promote and reward the mentoring effort…in much the same way we recognize the talent it supports.

Essentially, it creates a lifelong learning environment in which mentees move away from the role of passive recipient to become active learners, and mentors from that of sage advisor to catalyst and coach. The learning process is therefore self-directed rather than mentor-driven…its focus more on critical reflection and application than on knowledge transfer and acquisition.

Under this new model, we have a great deal more flexibility in how we provide mentoring opportunities…an important departure from the old one-on-one rule. Of course, we would all love to find that one uber-mentor, who is willing to focus all of his or her attention on us. But let’s face it. In today’s workplace, where we are often forced to do much more with much less, few people have either the time or the inclination to dedicate the work day to professional training.

So it behooves us to be creative in how we organize our mentoring opportunities for both maximum impact and optimal time-efficiency.

Group mentoring is one such possible approach. Not only does this allow us to stretch our resources even further, it also avoids the perception of favoritism that one-on-one mentoring sometimes evokes.

But perhaps the greatest selling point for this arrangement is that it empowers us to defy the boundaries of age, gender, rank, and race, by bringing together women and men of all cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic backgrounds. Therefore, we are not only developing talent, we are also fostering greater diversity of thought, practice, and understanding within our individual institutions.

Group mentoring comes in many different shapes and sizes. One of the more popular options involves periodic events and activities organized around career development issues.

For example, at my own University of Maryland University College, we sponsor an annual Women’s Career Development Conference. This activity provides an open forum for UMUC students, alumni, faculty, and staff…in which to network, mentor, advise, and walk away with real-world strategies they may use in both their professional and their personal lives.

Another popular variation on the group mentoring theme creates a learning circle of like-minded individuals, who meet regularly under the auspices of one or more mentors. After establishing a set of learning goals and objectives, mentors then facilitate a relevant, thought-provoking, and regular exchange of ideas, perspectives, and information around specific topics of interest.

While the learning circle approach is not for everyone — especially those who feel intimidated by or pressured in a group setting — it offers a number of rewards, particularly for women. It allows us to form a cohort of sorts, through which to build a broader and deeper network of professional relationships, while also receiving numerous sources of feedback…from each other, as well as from so-called experts in a variety of areas.

Peer to peer mentoring also offers organizations an exceptional return on their career development investment. As members of the higher education community, we know that some of the best mentors our students will have are other, more experienced students. Individuals who have already mastered the campus culture and its special language…concepts like course objectives, prerequisites, and annotated bibliographies.

As a university that caters to working adults, UMUC also makes use of its alumni — many of whom are women and all of whom have walked in similar shoes — to volunteer as mentors for incoming students…a relationship that frequently extends well beyond its original intent.

Not only are these folks good career development resources, they can also offer practical advice around balancing school with work and family responsibilities.

The same goes for our new faculty members — particularly in such learning environments as blended and online — who can learn to be better teachers and more effective career navigators by interacting with colleagues who already know the routine.

It goes without saying that this model certainly supports the new paradigm of mentoring….which focuses on the learning relationship, by relying on knowledgeable guides, who serve as important networking contacts, solid allies, and thoughtful role models.

We can also identify peer mentoring partners who because they are women or people of color have encountered similar barriers to career success along the way.

What’s more, mentors who are essentially equals on the food chain are far more likely to elicit a mutually beneficial learning partnership. And peer mentors relieve the professional development burden that many higher-level administrators feel, given the heavy load of additional responsibilities they often shoulder.

Consequently, colleges and universities around the country have increasingly embraced peer mentoring, with many having institutionalized it with incentives such as administrative release time for seasoned faculty members willing to help their peers become more successful.

And finally, distance mentoring — or as it is sometimes called eMentoring — offers yet another exceptional option for institutions of higher education, especially those delivering courses and services online. In fact, worldwide corporations like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, and far-reaching organizations such as The Association of Research Librarians and the Center for Health Leadership have successfully used this strategy for years.
At UMUC, with its global presence and extensive virtual campus, we have found this mentoring arrangement to be particularly valuable for connecting students with real world professionals in their chosen fields of study. It also works well for linking faculty members in Maryland with those in our European and Asian divisions.

Under this scenario, we can deploy a combination of such electronic tools as email, videoconferencing, and online meeting platforms to facilitate both one-on-one and group mentoring opportunities across time and space, an important advantage in today’s increasingly mobile marketplace.

Yet there are other benefits as well. For one thing, eMentoring forces us to make the learning time count…simply because it requires far more advance planning than the traditional face to face arrangement. And when our partners are on the other side of the country or even the world, we are much less likely to cancel out at the last minute, or get caught up in small talk.

We have also found that mentees who are more inhibited for whatever reason find it easier to have meaningful discussions either by email or over the phone. And distance mentoring provides the added bonus of increased techno-literacy, as participants become even more skilled at and comfortable with using these technologies.

John Crosby, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice during the late 1930s, once said that mentoring should be “a brain to pick…an ear to listen…and a push in the right direction.” While this was truly a visionary statement for the time, it has quickly become the basis for what all of us are looking for in a good mentor.

In fact, in a recent study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, most of those interviewed concurred that an effective mentoring partnership goes well beyond formal career advancement to embrace precisely the kind of informal exchange that Justice Crosby advocated.

Time and again, women tell me that they are looking for mentors — male or female — who encourage them to take strategic risks in every area of their lives, whether volunteering for a difficult assignment at work or climbing a mountain for the very first time.

That means identifying opportunities and evaluating challenges from a different perspective, while also supporting our attempts to establish stretch goals and transcend inner fears.

Most of us are also looking for mentors who value our paths, rather than insisting that we follow theirs. Who trust and respect us enough to pursue our own choices…because they understand that the mistakes we make are as important as the successes we experience. And while a good mentor may not always tell us what we want to hear, she leaves us feeling as if we have been heard.

Certainly, as administrators in higher education, we are uniquely positioned to further define and continue to shape this new culture of mentoring as an essential learning activity. However, in doing so, we must be willing to endorse the value and measure the impact of mentoring within our own institutions.

It begins with a commitment to action, as well as to consistency by setting goals and identifying procedures; defining roles and clarifying expectations; and gathering feedback with which to monitor progress and satisfaction. Even more important though, we will need to foster mutual support and shared responsibility among all of the relevant players.

Once we have accomplished these steps, we must then make mentoring an integral part of our institutional DNA, so to speak, by embracing it as both a cost-effective professional training tool and an extraordinary opportunity to showcase individual talents and skills….particularly among women and minorities.

That will mean tying our organizational vision and values, strategies and structures to both the promotion and the practice of mentoring. And at the same time, increasing its visibility through reward and recognition, incentives for participation, and, of course, support from the leadership team. Which is where all of us in this room become essential to the process.

Fred Manske, a former Senior Vice President with Federal Express, once said that “the ultimate leader is not afraid to develop people to the point they surpass him or her in knowledge and ability.”

A remarkable sentiment and one that I would like to underscore.

I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate women on this planet, having been afforded an opportunity that only a privileged few individuals of either gender can ever claim.

I have a chance to learn something new every day as the leader of the second largest public university in the country…a chance to shape the future of higher education in the 21st century…and a chance to collaborate with remarkable students and colleagues from all over the world.

Yet I would never have had any of these opportunities without a great deal of hard work, courage of conviction, and personal sacrifice on my part; as well as a lot of solid support and genuine encouragement from those I worked for and with. That’s why I have always been willing to pay that support and encouragement forward by offering it to the exceedingly gifted people I am so fortunate to lead at UMUC.

As enlightened women who are literally transforming the practice of leadership in higher education, we must always be willing to use our power as a platform for accomplishment, rather than a position for control…by modeling both the vision and the principles we espouse.

Now, that’s certainly not to say that in carrying out our responsibilities we must play into the gender stereotypes that often define us as more sensitive and nurturing than our male counterparts. Indeed, most of us are far more willing to follow those at the top who challenge us to greater heights and nobler outcomes by telling us in voices loud and clear: There’s the hill. It’s big and it’s steep. But I know how to get us to the other side.

Yet we are looking for leaders who use their power to help us discover and realize our own…by creating an environment in which everyone within the organization — young and old…male and female…seasoned and inexperienced — can learn from one another.

In closing, I would like to leave you with these wise words from the 19th century English writer, Albert Pine…who said: What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us. What we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.