Mentor exchange event

This post was written for CILIP in the Thames Valley and was first published on their blog

A ‘Mentor Exchange’ event took place at RISC in Reading on Wednesday 31 May, led by local mentor support officer (MSO) Linda Jones, whose professional home is the University of Portsmouth. Very much a ‘round table’ event (though without a table), attendees gathered to hear from Linda about CILIP’s move towards training and supporting mentors via the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) as opposed to the classroom-based training of the past, and to guide prospective mentors in what to expect from the experience, of training and mentorship in general.

The event started with each attendee describing who they were and what their situation was. The group included everyone from recently Chartered librarians interested in becoming mentors, to a retired colleague who sits on the CILIP Board and has experience evaluating professional registration portfolios. A new mentor shared her first impressions of mentorship, including to “remember that the work comes from them.” She added that there is no need to talk a great deal, but when doing so, to ask questions. This nicely set the scene for an exercise from Linda for all attendees, more of which later. The attendee concluded that being a mentor was “not as scary” as she thought it would be.

The perspective of a person sitting on the CILIP Board – and effectively being a mentor of mentors – was provided next. The main lessons here were of the benefits of mentoring someone who works in a different branch of information management to the one in which the mentor gained most of his/her experience.  Not only does this make the experience more interesting for the mentor, it also encourages the mentee to consider their work objectively, which helps them to place their activities in a wider context – in the words of the attendee, “to look outside themselves.” But the evidence they provide in their portfolios must be appropriate to their fields.

The next question from Linda to go round was what are, or what would attendees imagine to be, the most positive and negative sides of mentoring? Speaking of herself Linda admitted that she thrives on working with people from different sectors, particularly because she enjoys seeing as many libraries as she can get into, believing as she does that they are vital to civilisation. On the negative side, she regrets seeing mentees “driving down the wrong road for far too long,” developing material that doesn’t fit in their portfolios. Overall, she’s had fantastic experiences as a mentor, whether they’ve stayed in touch or have happily gone on their way after the experience of professional registration.

Two attendees who attained Chartered status relatively recently and are interested in becoming mentors were concerned that, in doing so, they would be able to provide the same quality of mentorship that they had enjoyed as mentees, whether this is guidance in general about professional practices or specifically following CILIP’s procedures. The more experienced attendees reassured them that all mentors have access to an MSO (in our case, Linda), and that curiosity is enough when working with someone from a different sector. The question of the risk of mentoring someone who goes on to fail to achieve professional registration was also aired. The reply here was to remember that it is always the mentee’s portfolio and that failure is their failure, rather than that of the mentor. In these cases mentors can work with the feedback provided by the assessment board.

Another attendee was concerned about being able to convince her line manager to let her be a mentor, to which the group agreed that the best approach was to find the right words to demonstrate the benefits to her employer of doing so.

Move towards online training
Next Linda explained recent changes in CILIP’s mentor training. MSOs’ recent experiences are that it is increasingly difficult to get would-be mentors and trainers into the same room for a full day. CILIP’s answer is to virtualise the process via the VLE, which now has a separate mentoring section. What would have been communicated in one day’s worth of intensive classroom training is now to be imparted over four weeks online. To be clear, the window available is four weeks but the amount of work is the same as can be achieved in a day, i.e. seven hours. The four weeks are structured, however. There are four weekly units that must be done in four consecutive weeks. The second week consists of a practical exercise conducted with another candidate. Two MSOs also follow the course (Linda was keen to point out that this new process is also new to them).

Those worried about using the VLE should be reassured that it is much easier to use than it was a year ago and that the course is well-structured. Discussion boards replace face-to-face contact and Linda encourages everyone to chat, get to know people, and explore. She commented that she has also asked that current mentors be allowed to do the training, to bring them up-to-speed with the new interface. Sections of the course are made available as one progresses through it. Much of the information is provided in the form of video. It is possible to download course frameworks for those wanting to study them offline.

This part of the meeting ended with a discussion about Certification and how it relates to the NVQ in library and information studies, and how both might relate to the development of an apprenticeship scheme for our sector.

A fun exercise to end
To round off the meeting Linda handed out plain envelopes to everyone, who split into pairs for an exercise on closed and open questions. Each envelope contained a picture of an animal. The object was for each attendee to find out what animal their counterpart had by asking as many closed questions as they liked, followed by a single open question. Closed questions were defined as ones in which there is a binary answer, meaning one of two options – typically yes or no. An open question, by contrast, is one that might have any answer.

In practice, the exercise was good fun but it also clearly illustrated the power of open questions and the limits of closed ones. For a mentor/mentee conversation, open questions are always to be preferred because they encourage the mentee to provide information, which requires them to think about their situation objectively, in order to explain it to their mentor, and to examine their own feelings.

In conclusion
Linda brought the meeting to a close with the some useful advice. Mentoring doesn’t have to be face-to-face, but it’s worth remembering that what works for oral communication isn’t always appropriate when written, so make sure your tone is right in any written communication. Mentoring can give you skills to deal with difficult people at work. Mentors can say no to any request from mentees.

The final piece of advice came from the CILIP Board member attending, with which Linda wholeheartedly agreed: mentees must express their own professional voices in their portfolios; the test, particularly for Chartership, is that they demonstrate their own initiative.