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Supporting resilience in difficult times - new report on executive mentoring

16 Apr 2020 | Dr Carmelina Lawton Smith Advance HE’s report, Mentoring for Senior Executive Leadership in Higher Education: Potential and Possibilities, is published for members today. Here, Dr. Carmelina Lawton Smith of the International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University explains how mentoring can be a valuable support to HE leaders in these challenging times.

It’s lonely at the top

In difficult times mentoring can be a valuable resource, even for the most senior levels. In these unprecedented and challenging times even the most experienced leaders in higher education face uncharted waters, carrying the weight and responsibility of multiple stakeholders that include staff, students and potentially the very existence of the institution. This can be a heavy load and having a trusted sounding board with whom to share concerns, ideas and potential solutions can help relieve the pressure, supporting resilience in difficult times.

The role of the mentor

Traditionally, mentoring has been portrayed as a more senior individual supporting the growth of a junior person and such relationships are seen in multiple context, from organisational induction mentoring, to prospective university students who are mentored by existing students. In some parts of the world this relationship extends to one of patronage, where the senior person effectively sponsors junior talent and ‘opens doors’ for them. However, in recent years there have been a number of evolutions of the mentoring concept that have brought positive results. Most notably the concept of ‘reverse mentoring’ where it is not hierarchy, but experience that counts. In such cases, younger individuals have been asked to mentor older more senior colleagues on the use of social media, or where those who have experienced diversity issues, mentor those in authority to help them appreciate the issues and implications. In these examples, what the mentor brings is greater experience of something that can be of value to the mentee.

Executive mentoring

While such examples imply the mentor has more experience of something, there are also benefits to be gained from mentors who simply have different experience. There are a number of schemes where leaders in the private sector mentor those in the public sector, and vice versa. Recognising that the cross fertilisation of ideas can have great benefits for all, much as we have seen in academia with cross disciplinary projects. This has led to the potential for peer mentoring to emerge which has application at the most senior levels. Once we let go of the idea that the mentor must be more experienced it opens up the possibility of using colleagues from other institutions or organisations to offer support at the highest level. While we must remain mindful of potential conflicts of interest, competition and confidentiality, there are opportunities for fruitful peer relationships.

In these challenging times there are often difficult decisions to be made and those at the very top of organisations are likely to have few confidants with whom they can share and debate the problems they face. Having an independent mentor who appreciates the position from a confidential and neutral standpoint can give the most senior leaders some reflective space and bring the potential of someone who can speak ‘truth to power’.

Do not underestimate the value of talking through issues with another peer. Suppression of strong emotions and the keeping of secrets occupies valuable cognitive energy that can lead to rumination and affect well-being. Once we can structure our thoughts into the linear language we use in talking it through it can reveal ideas, approaches and feeling we were not even aware of, allowing us to process and think thing through more objectively. With the added benefit, in the current climate, of being easily achieved with the telephone or remote communication.

Could you offer to mentor someone in another context of a similar level? Might you benefit from a trusted independent peer to talk to? Many organisations are making use of senior executive mentoring schemes, could yours be one of them? If you feel this could be of value to your organisation Advance HE now has the Executive Leaders Peer Mentoring Handbook available to members to support best practice in the implementation of senior executive mentoring.

Read the full report: Mentoring for Senior Executive Leadership in Higher Education: Potential and Possibilities

Staff in senior executive positions wishing to know more about Advance HE's senior executive coaching support should contact  Tracy Bell-Reeves – Director of Programmes and Events.

Dr. Carmelina Lawton Smith is a coaching, mentoring and development specialist who combines her private practice with a consultancy role for Oxford Brookes University Business School. She specialises in coaching and mentoring scheme implementation and the development of coaching and mentoring skills.


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