I was contemplating stepping down from the staff development committee at my library because I really didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute. Then, the chair of the committee decided to resurrect the mentoring program that had ended roughly a decade before. The idea of a mentoring program seemed very positive, yet I had serious doubts about how I could be of any assistance. I’m fairly low in the organization, and most of the people that I’ve been working with have decades more experience than I had. In any event, I stayed on the committee and within a year, I was the head of the mentoring committee.
I want to share with you how we re-built a library mentoring program from the ground up, and how anyone has the potential to be a mentor (even if they don’t believe it themselves!).
We brought in an outside consultant to host a session of mentoring training to prepare the mentors and inform them of their responsibilities in the program. Additionally, the mentoring committee had a brief discussion with the mentees to discuss their responsibilities as well. The first round consisted of sixteen participants, and after surveying the people at the end of the twelve week program, we learned some things that worked well and other things that didn’t work so well. The program was received well by the participants, which motivated us to have future iterations. We’ve now had four rounds of the program, and over one hundred people from the library have participated as a mentor or a mentee. In the course of these four rounds, I’ve gained a great deal of knowledge about what it means to mentor, how beneficial mentoring can be for library staff, and I’ve gained confidence in my ability to network, provide instruction, and coordinate a successful program.
Starting with the second round of the program, I was primarily responsible for scheduling training and orientation sessions for mentors and mentees. I’ve always had dismal public speaking skills, though eventually I became very comfortable meeting new people, and presenting them with information while answering any questions that they had. By the third round, I was asked to be the head of the committee, and this coincided with losing many of the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy regarding instructing people on mentoring. In the third round, I was inspired by others stepping up in the organization to participate as a mentor myself, which was probably the first time I had ever formally taken that role. Throughout the past three years, I’ve learned a few key things that anybody working on a mentoring program should remember:
Mentors don’t realize their own skills
In the second round, I remember one of the librarians being puzzled as to why we asked them to participate in the program as a mentor. “Why me?” seemed to be a common response asked to the committee by several potential mentors. After explaining some of the resources that they have that they may not even realize, such as institutional history and a large network of connections, people started to understand how they could be an effective mentor, even if they’ve only been at the library for a few years. Very rarely is there a person in the organization that knows everything, but after spending years in an organization, a person develops a good sense of who the experts are in an organization, and what are some of the institutional policies that aren’t necessarily spelled out in a Standard Practice Guide. This is part of what makes mentors so valuable!
Mentor training is essential
Mentors and mentees need to be aware of their responsibilities. In our program, we asked all of the mentees to come up with a SMART goal at the beginning of the program to give the program a direction. We laid out some guidelines, such as general responsibilities, which party should reach out to who, how often people should meet, and what is/isn’t confidential. We also stressed the notion to both parties that because the committee was responsible for matching mentors and mentees based on their application to the program, that there was the possibility of having a mismatch, and to let us know if the mentoring relationship wasn’t working. It’s not easy for a mentor or a mentee to say that the pairing isn’t working, but it’s a waste of time for both parties to participate if the relationship is going nowhere.
Mentoring has to be flexible
In the first round of the program, we asked people to meet once a week for twelve weeks, and this simply didn’t work for people. People couldn’t commit due to other work obligations, and we used their feedback to revise the program. Starting with round two, we encouraged people to meet six to twelve times during a four month period which was much easier for people to handle. The program was designed to be particularly flexible in terms of what mentors could provide including career advice, help navigating the library or community, information about professional associations, assistance networking and general encouragement. By having the program so flexible, it encouraged people with various needs to participate, which may be a reason why the program was so popular.
Mentoring really makes an impact!
There were so many participants, both mentors and mentees, who reported getting a great deal out of the program. Some mentors enjoyed mentoring so much that they participated two or three times. Several of the mentees went on to further their careers, either at the library or other organizations. Two mentees in particular that had reported feelings of disappointment in their current positions have moved up in the organization and seem to be much happier with their current situation. I’ve had so many people tell me how great the program was and how they’ve encouraged others to participate. I myself benefited incredibly through the amount of people that I’ve met through the program, my experience in training others, and my experience of actually being a mentor.
Another thing that I already believed, but was reinforced by the mentoring program, is that cake and other baked goods are generally crowd-pleasers. I would recommend having kick-off events with light refreshments and some ice-breaker activities to get people in the program talking to each other. In one of the rounds we had a potluck lunch where people could bring in a dish and get a chance to talk to other mentoring pairs and compare notes as to what was working really well in the mentoring relationship.
The program was one of the most meaningful things I’ve participated in during my eight years at the library. Since the program has been in place, many individuals from the library have made connections to others that they might never have met had they not participated in the program. By having staff across the library connecting with one another and sharing valuable resources, it has contributed to making the library a more positive, interconnected organization that is increasingly utilizing and transferring various knowledge, skills and abilities from staff member to staff member. I would highly suggest that if a mentoring program exists at your organization that you participate in it, or perhaps start one up if there isn’t currently a program in place.