Mentoring as a strategy for investing in staff progress

Academics find themselves in a progressively competitive and demanding work environment. There are ever-increasing pressures to research and publish, to apply for grants, to keep abreast of and incorporate the latest technology in their teaching, regularly review course content, deliver in online and face-to-face mode, contribute to committees and perform an array of administrative duties.

The past couple of years have drawn further attention to these challenges and the importance of not only attracting and effectively appointing the best staff, but also retaining academic talent. The pandemic has taken its toll not only on students, but also on academics. Some left the sector voluntarily, frustrated and stressed by the enforced changes; others were subject to involuntary redundancy.

Without good staff it doesn’t take long before the organisation suffers in terms of lack of progress and productivity. Universities must invest in a range of ways to recruit the best talent and significantly create opportunities, conditions and practices that assure staff they can develop and advance in their career.

Support throughout a career

One sometimes underdeveloped strategy to improve job satisfaction, manage and foster talent development and aid succession planning is mentoring. A mentor relationship with another colleague who is separate from the line of management can provide a helpful source of professional and psychological support, especially for a newly appointed academic. It can also build scholarly confidence and promote career advancement.

Positive mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial professional partnerships. They tend to be between an individual with experience (mentor) who shares their knowledge, skills and expertise with another who has lesser experience or has a specific professional goal (mentee). These relationships are grounded in trust, respect and confidentiality.

There are no hard and fast rules about the duration and nature of a mentor programme. For some it is for a designated period of time – generally one semester, but in others it can extend for much longer. What it does include are reciprocal undertakings such as goal planning, acting and reflecting on progress towards goals, discussing and sharing ideas and problem solving.

They can also incorporate opportunities for research collaborations on substantial projects, introductions to professional networks and invitations to sit on committees or attend influential conferences.

Once a clear purpose and set of goals has been mutually decided upon, the expected roles and accountabilities of mentor and mentee must be agreed and adhered to.

There is also no single formula to the mentor:mentee relationship as each is unique. However, for the partnership to be successful, there must be open communication between participants and alignment of expectations.

When it works well, it provides a supportive non-judgemental environment and lessens feelings of isolation, especially for those individuals from a minority group.

While the focus is on the professional development and goal advancement of the mentee, the mentor can also benefit by developing leadership, management and interpersonal skills.

Another motivator for the mentor is the personal satisfaction of helping steer someone’s professional career development and-or being recognised by colleagues for their experience and expertise.

And for others it is the concept of paying-it-forward by helping develop the next generation of talent and sharing in the successes achieved by the mentee.

Mentoring set-ups

However, it can sometimes be difficult to identify persons willing and able to voluntarily take on such a role. Mentors (and mentees alike) need to invest considerable structured time and commitment to the mentorship process for it to be effective.

In such cases, one solution is to move from a mentor:mentee relationship to the establishment of mentorship teams. This approach has its own benefits in that it allows for a greater diversity of experience, expertise and viewpoints to be called on by the mentee.

For mentors, it shares the time and level of commitment associated with the role with others and furthers their own professional development by engaging with and learning from the mentor team.

Whatever approach is employed, what is of most importance is that the quality of mentorship provided is positive and productive.

Higher education institutions should view mentoring as a significant aspect of the academic professional development process and to that end there is a role for institutional leadership to establish intentional support mechanisms that foster the mentoring process. That also sends an encouraging signal to all participants that the institution views the process as worthwhile and is prepared to invest in it.

There are institutions that offer an honorarium to mentors or a reduced teaching and-or administrative workload as an incentive to commit fully to the process.

Some institutions develop a register of mentors with details about their experience and areas of expertise that allows potential mentees to decide ‘best fit’ for their requirements. Those on the register have all completed an initial training programme that outlines key expectations of the process, such as giving a timely response to questions or queries, conducting regular scheduled meetings between parties and providing constructive feedback.

Other institutions have a less structured method and leave the process up to mentees to approach individuals whom they perceive can meet their needs or who have been recommended to them by colleagues. Regardless of whether it is a structured or self-selected arrangement, ensuring compatibility between mentor and mentee is a vitally important part of the matching process.

Benefits all round

Given the increasingly competitive higher education sector environment and additional recent challenges faced by academics, it seems prudent for institutions to recognise the benefits associated with developing and investing in mentoring programmes.

Quality mentorship plays an important role in academic talent development, professional fulfilment and ultimately employee retention.

Having a policy and framework that outlines the mentoring function as a valued component of professional development sets the foundation for such recognition – as does institutional leadership and management supporting mentors and mentees for the duration of the formal process in ways that best fit the institution’s context.

The benefits go beyond serving individual employee requirements to ensuring positive outcomes for the whole institution.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.