Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Upping the game

I've been involved in the mentoring program for SAA for a few years now. As a mentor, if you can imagine that. If you can't bring yourself to imagine that, I can hardly blame you. Some things are probably better left to the quiet dark.

Warning: any negativity that follows is in no way the fault of my mentees or the mentoring program. It's all on me or on nobody at all: some of it is my fault, some of it is just the way things go.

I've been dissatisfied with the mentoring program for a while. I'm not somebody who likes to function without a safety net or maybe, more to the point, navigate without a map. I'd have been a rotten explorer back in the day. I would have been the one on the stern of the ship thinking "I bet if I jumped off now I could still swim back to port..." (never mind that I can't swim). My dissatisfaction with the program is that I never really felt like I knew what I was doing. The guidelines were vague and it's not like I had a strong conceptual image of what it needed to be.

Which seemed to me to be antithetical to being a good mentor. So my approach in past was to tell my mentee that I was willing to do/discuss whatever they wanted. And usually what that wound up being with my skill set and the mentees I was assigned--usually long distance, in grad school or recent grads--meant that I was reading resumes and cover letters for them. Now that's not such a bad thing, but it just felt like not much. And it really didn't feel like mentoring, just editing.

{Side note: not sure what's up here but my mac's auto-correct really dislikes the word mentee. As do I, but I can't recall right now what the real word is. It keeps changing it to menthe, so if that creeps in somewhere, I'm not comparing people to a viscous green alcoholic mixer. Just so you know. I realize you're smarter than that, but I couldn't blame you for thinking I wasn't.}

At any rate, that was the jumble running around in my head when I was talking with a colleague the other day, and she was explaining to me that she didn't feel her mentoring relationship was really working for her, either. And we talked about how people got matched up and how the program seems to always be low on people willing to be mentors. And I said "that's because all of us think we need mentors too much to think we'd be any good at being them." And her response was, of course, "Attila, you've been an archivist for 17 years. Why on earth would you think you need a mentor at this stage?" Well, those of you who have been around a few years know that time in the profession--in any profession perhaps--means nothing when it comes to the need for guidance. In fact, as we progress there's probably maybe even more that requires the help of a mentor as we face even stickier problems that are even less likely to be written up in the professional literature... As we continued the conversation, I started talking about the mentors I've had thus far in my career: Bert Rhoads, Danna Bell-Russel, Rand Jimerson, Karyl Winn, Alice Cone, and a whole host of others who I've regarded as mentors though perhaps they didn't see themselves as such. And what I realized as I was talking away was that these relationships--mentoring relationships that I felt had been very effective--had some things in common.

  • None were done within a formalized mentoring program (though some--like Bert, Karyl & Alice--started as formal relationships: Bert was my archives professor at WWU, Karyl my internship supervisor at UW and Alice was my supervisor at the Utah State Archives)
  • All had some in-person, face-to-face element
  • All had some sort of social element
  • All served to enlarge my network of colleagues and friends
  • I came to regard all of them as my friend as well as my mentor and colleague

Please don't get me wrong. That first bullet point? Is NOT my argument for throwing out the SAA mentoring program. In fact, it perhaps argues most strongly FOR the need for a formalized program or two within the profession. Look, I was really, really lucky that I came together with the mentors I've had over my career thus far. And it scares me to death to think where I'd be if I hadn't had those relationships. It was chance, but I'm not sure we should be willing to leave such things to chance.

But here's the thing. Mentoring, as I've been practicing it within the program, doesn't meet any of the rest of those standards. It's been a rather ad hoc, on call type of thing, where I've been relying on my mentee to tell me what he or she needed and how much. But that's simply unreasonable, as my colleague pointed out to me the other day. Because maybe the mentee doesn't know what he or she needs. Isn't that the point of mentoring? To discover needs and work through them as you go? I certainly had no expectations of those relationships with Bert, Danna, Rand, Karyl & Alice (does that sound like a movie title to anybody else?) And yet they all became the most important sources of guidance for me in my career.

I'm going to go on what looks like a tangent here, but I promise it relates. A couple of years ago, I wanted to improve the teamwork in my relatively small department. And I was being pushed to hold regular department meetings (mostly in every HR training I ever attended.) I'm not a huge fan of such things, and so I decided that if I had to hold regular staff meetings, it was going to be on my terms. i.e. over food and not at the workplace. That limits somewhat since it's not always fair to ask people with home lives (i.e. everybody but me) to have dinner meetings and we didn't want to shut down our reference desk for long lunches, so breakfast it was. At a humane hour (8:30 am: semi-humane for my team, a little late for me), we started meeting at local restaurants within a reasonable distance of work so we didn't have to rush like crazy people to open our desk at 10:00, and I'd buy.

And this is how it relates: we started doing these meetings in a fashion not dissimilar to my concerns about the mentoring program. I didn't really have a game plan. I was doing it because I was supposed to do it, but I didn't know what to expect. At best, I figured, we'd develop some friendships and at worst, I'd be trying out a few new breakfast joints. But here's what I discovered over the now two years of doing them. We get some really good work done. We've written policy, worked on projects, set goals. We've also had a few that were probably better classified as social hour than work. We've even invited others along--usually related to topics or projects that required help from others outside the department. (Note: if you invite the big boss, he'll probably require you go to a nicer restaurant--my crew is cheap!--but he always pays.) And the few times we've gotten off schedule or I've failed to put them in the next month's schedule, my crew has been very, very pointed about my failures in this regard. Who would have guessed that somebody would actually like staff meetings?

I'd been thinking about these breakfast meetings, and I had the conversation with my colleague, and then my mentee contacted me. She'd been thinking about the mentor/mentee relationship too, and would I be willing to talk? Is there any phrase that strikes terror into the heart of the thinking person more than "We need to talk?" So we set a time and I called her. And it turns out, she wasn't entirely satisfied with the situation either. But she thought she needed to be more proactive in her side of it. To contact me more often, not just when she had application materials for me to read. Maybe we could discuss interviews. Or her networking attempts. She decided she wanted to put more into it so she could get more out of it. How smart is that? (Way smarter than her mentor, apparently).

Since we're about 3,000 miles apart, the face-to-face thing isn't going to happen any time soon. I can't fix that. Maybe in the larger cities  it's easier to have mentors who you can meet with in-person, but not so much when I'm in Alaska. And though I make an effort to attend SAA most years, it is expensive and I can't expect that all mentees will have the wherewithal to go. But maybe we could get around that by taking it from email to voice. And maybe if we started meeting via phone it would seem more like there was a real person on the other side, rather than just some letters on a backlit screen. And maybe if we set up a regular--and relatively frequent--schedule to do so, perhaps we'd feel like we had to time to veer into non-professional areas and get to know each other as individuals and not just co-professionals.

So that's what we're doing. The first and third Thursday of every month, I now have an hour booked out in the late afternoon (her early evening given the time zone difference) and we're going to chat. The deal is that we're going to try to keep a consistent schedule. Things come up, so on occasion we may not make it, it may be shorter than usual, maybe it'll be longer. We'll stay flexible. And having regularly scheduled meets will hopefully save us from falling into the trap of "we talk so rarely that we have to solve all the world's ills in THIS conversation."  We'll give it a shot. My mentee has already come up with a list of topics/agendas that she wants to pursue that will take us through April and most likely beyond. And even if we do polish those off to our satisfaction, what do you bet that by the end of April we have a bunch more things to bring to the table? Who would have guessed we had so much to really talk about back when we were only exchanging emails with resumes and cover letters attached?

After we set this up, I went back to my colleague and told her about the plan we'd just set up. And I said "Oh, I know this may not help get more volunteers to be mentors, because suddenly it looks like a fairly substantial commitment of time." (okay, really, 1 hour every two weeks is not that substantial a time commitment, I know. I've spent more time than that some weeks staring at nail polish at the grocery store.)   And her response was that maybe I was seeing it backward. Maybe if mentors know that there was a set time commitment and a schedule to follow, it would be easier to work it into calendars and scheduling. Rather than having it feel like a "I need to put out this fire now" situation with no predictability.

Well, that at much is unanswerable, what others may think of it and if it will make them more likely to volunteer as a mentor, or not. In my case, I know it's easier. I haven't always been the most responsive of mentors because occasionally requests for help would come through right as I was overloaded with other projects. Not that my mentee had any expectation of me responding same day, but I kind of had that expectation of me. But now I know we'll have these regular discussions and we'll be able to work out that extra scheduling for the one-off projects too.

Maybe one of these days, when I get through the 2-foot-high stack of professional reading I have to do, I'll pick up something on how to do professional mentoring and discover it tells me I need to do a bunch of things like I have listed above. That I didn't need to reinvent the wheel and do discovery, that there was a game plan out there and I just hadn't read it yet. But since I instinctively distrust relationship methodology writings  since it always seems like the individual gets in the way of the general, maybe making it up as we go isn't such a bad approach. I'll keep you posted on how it's working. With the copious input of my mentee, of course. Because if it doesn't work for her, it doesn't work. I hope it works. She's amazing. Barely out of grad school, she's already got an article in process for publication in American Archivist, she's active in SAA. Very user-centric attitude. Well-spoken, and clearly, an excellent self-starter with the courage to suggest changes--and good ones--when changes are needed. An inspiration who has got me thinking again about how I can rejuvenate my professional research and writing. (Who is the mentor here?) Anybody need a great early-career archivist? I've got your woman. Let me know.