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On Mentoring

| December 7, 2021

by Susan Foster

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Susan Foster, IT Business Manager at Bowdoin College. She is a current MOR program participant.  Susan may be reached at [email protected].]


In reflecting about coaching and mentoring recently, I walked through my career experience recollecting which experience was momentous. Was there one that made me realize I was in a self-fulfilling career path, and not just a job? What prompted that turning point when I felt confident, smart, and realized I could make a real contribution in higher education and not just be a worker bee?


And then I realized, there was one—that one event that changed everything. And it wasn’t a big event, in fact I wouldn’t even call it an event at all.  It was a short, unplanned conversation that happened one day, after I had been working for about 7 years at Tufts. My role at the time was Director of Student Services for a new and very young graduate school. My job essentially was to manage the administrative processes around students—from admissions through commencement—a sort of one-stop shop for students in our school.


I was a member, ex-officio, of all academic committees—admissions, curriculum, thesis review…lots of committees. One issue that I noticed kept coming up was course scheduling, overlap, and the dilemma of allowing access for all students to required courses, while providing faculty some equity in terms of when they taught. Nobody wanted to teach on Fridays or Mondays, nobody wanted their course enrollment low because it conflicted with a “sexy” course as some were called. Everyone wanted those prime-time slots, which would place their class at the center of the academic universe. This in a time before software was developed that could manage these personalized requests, and it seemed quite daunting.


So, I took some time, a month or so, to map out a way to try to accommodate everyone—was it even possible? Literally drawing on a huge sketch pad, I planned out a 2-year schedule, color coding, and comparing time available, individual faculty preferences, requirements, class size, all that stuff. I worried at the time that I might be overstepping my bounds, since faculty alone had determined their course schedules, and it was, let’s say, a sensitive area.


Nevertheless, I took it to my boss who was the Dean, and left it on his desk, with a sticky note that said, “was working on this, when you have time take a look—no rush.” The next morning when I came in, the plan was back on my desk, with my sticky note still attached, but with one comment from my boss—-“you’re brilliant.” When he arrived in the office that day, he came to see me, and said, you need to realize how smart you are, and to speak up in meetings. I don’t think you know this about yourself, so I’m telling you, you’re smarter than half the people in the room, and you are not there by mistake. Present that on Friday—it addresses every issue we’ve been whining about.


And that was it, my aah hah moment, when I thought, oh wow, I can do this, my ideas have value, I think I love this work! It was one of the most validating moments of my life. This person of course was my first and most important mentor, one with whom I could share ideas, ask questions, exchange views. He encouraged me to take risks, think independently, be confident, listen to people, and be creative. He constantly told stories—not just to me but to everyone on his staff—stories of his experiences, lessons learned, what to value, and what to ignore or let go. If you went to him with a question, he never answered it directly, it invariably led to a story, often long stories. He led by example and did so with intelligence and grace.


So many of the topics we have discussed in our MOR program and with our coaches here emphasize these very tools and skills that I was taught and exposed to those many years ago. And in my own experience, years later as a manager of many people, I have never held back telling them, repeatedly and very specifically, their strengths and what they bring to the table, as well as the areas that needed development, or goals they should strive to reach.


Once I hired a financial manager from within my institution. She stood out to me not because of her financial skills, but because of her outgoing and inclusive personality. I needed a person like that on my team because I already had quite a few talented introverts. She may have been one of the weakest financial analysts I’ve worked with, but she was marvelous with people. One day I asked her why she went into finance, and she said it was because her mother was an accountant. I couldn’t help but point out that I didn’t think accounting skills were inherited, and that I wanted her to consider becoming our human resource person. She was surprised, scared, and yet somehow delighted by this idea. Today she is the head of HR for a major insurance company.


I’ve seen many people react much as I and my former accountant did—with a level of surprise, sometimes shock, followed by a sense of satisfaction, self-esteem and self-awareness that may not have existed before when given guidance from respected colleague. A mentor that you get to know, who understands you, and ultimately cares about your future, can make all the difference.


If you have not yet found your mentor, search one out, find someone that you admire, not just for their accomplishments, but for their beliefs, reputation, and how they have achieved them. The person does not need to be in your field of work, your office or even your company. It just needs to be someone who you admire, can comfortably talk with, and who you can access through your network of co-workers, family, or friends. Professional coaches and mentors like those in the MOR program can influence your perspective, introduce skills and tools to help you meet your goals, and may see in you something you do not yet see in yourself.


Then someday, you can return the favor, and will recognize the sometimes hidden yet special gifts of many people around you.