Staff Mentoring Programs Help Employees Thrive on Campus

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The staff mentoring program at the University of Cincinnati (UC) isn’t just a two-way street. At times, it’s more like a whole intersection.

[Above: Bleuzette Marshall, vice president of UC’s Office of Equity, Inclusion and Community Impact, speaks at the first Mentor Me UC reception in February.]

Shelly Sherman
Shelly Sherman

Take the experience of Shelly Sherman, MEd, coordinator of the program known as Mentor Me UC and executive director of Human Resources Business Partner for the university. She not only was a mentor to Keisha James, a benefits specialist at the university, but she also had a mentor herself, Greg Vehr, UC’s vice president of government relations and university communications. Experiencing the program from both ends of the mentor-mentee relationship — as Sherman and many other UC employees have — helps everyone involved get as much out of the program as possible.

“I think mentees should avoid thinking that their mentors will have all the answers. I also think they should avoid thinking that this will be the be-all and end-all and that they’re only going to learn from their mentor,” Sherman says. “It’s a learning experience, so you [can’t assume] that just because you’re the mentor or the mentee, that you’re going to have or get all the answers.”

Nirva LaFortune with her mentor Richard Locke
Nirva LaFortune with her mentor Richard Locke

One key to ensuring that a mentoring relationship expands the horizons of both participants is making certain that the pair is a good fit. At Brown University, Provost Richard Locke, PhD, was matched with Nirva LaFortune, manager and adviser for the university’s Presidential Scholars Program. 

He serves in a top position at Brown, while she was the first in her family to attend college and now helps ease that passage for others. Locke says the chemistry between the two worked just as they’d hoped. “Someone who’s been around the block a couple more times can share experiences with younger staff members,” he says, “to give them the help they need to succeed.” 

“And it works both ways,” he adds. “Nirva is aware of things [happening] on campus and has insights and information about things that I might not have. I can give her some guidance because I’m older, but she’s also able to give me advice and information. It’s really a two-way street.”

Getting Started
The mentoring program at Brown began in 2016 with the goal of fostering employees’ professional development and career growth while also enhancing a culture of inclusion on campus. Judy Nabb, director of learning and professional development, says the university had facilitated informal staff mentoring relationships for a long time, but through town hall meetings, focus groups, and additional means of gathering information, Brown’s diversity and inclusion action plan led to more structured interactions.

“While the program is not focused specifically on staff members from historically underrepresented groups,” Nabb says, “a formal mentoring program makes [such] opportunities more equitably accessible to all members of our community.”

To help get the right pairings, Brown requires would-be mentors and mentees to answer a number of questions about why they want to participate and what they hope to gain from the relationship. A committee then uses the applications and insight from personal interviews to make the best matches. 

Among other factors, the committee takes into account mentors’ and mentees’ preferences in the matching process, as many participants seek someone from a similar background or set of life experiences.

Mentor Me UC participants Shelly Sherman and Keisha James
Mentor Me UC participants Shelly Sherman and Keisha James

At UC, Sherman says that prior to her joining the staff more than four years ago — after being involved in mentoring programs at companies such as Cintas and Sara Lee — the university had conducted a climate survey. The results, she says, were revealing.

“People who were in underrepresented groups, such as women or people of color, said they didn’t feel they had some of the opportunities to network and [engage in] career development that their majority counterparts had,” she says. 

In response, the university created Mentor Me UC, a program in which diversity and cross-cultural experiences play a key role in both attracting and retaining staff. In this informal mentoring program, pairs are encouraged to maintain their relationship for at least nine months, and they work together to decide on goals for the partnership. 

“Part of [its purpose] is making sure that people can bring their whole selves to work,” Sherman says. “[We] really want a diverse group of people to fully participate and be who they are.”

According to Sherman, 43 percent of the mentees in the program are people of color and 87 percent are women. For the mentors, 30 percent are people of color and 79 percent are women. Both Sherman and her mentee are African American women, a pairing that she says occurred more because of their career roles and the experiences they sought than their race or gender.  

Yet, when Sherman was looking to be matched with a mentor, she says she sought a “majority male” — a person who has had experiences that were different from hers. “I wanted to be able to develop a relationship with someone who had been able to navigate the university setting but had a different experience,” she says.

“It has really helped me from the standpoint of seeing the other side of the coin,” she adds. “I still consider myself a new hire, and I wanted someone who had a lot of experience in higher education, someone who was good in communications, because a lot of the time, corporate speak and higher ed speak are very different.”

Taking the Time
One of the most important aspects of any mentoring relationship is making sure that both sides take the time necessary for it to work. 

“When you’re looking for someone who’s going to be a mentor,” Sherman says, “you have to find someone whose answer will be ‘absolutely, I’d love to,’ not someone who will say ‘no, I’m too busy.’”

At Brown, Locke stresses the need to not just be available but to also give meetings the attention they deserve. “It’s an issue of time,” he says, “but it’s also an issue of breaking through the hierarchy.”

Joe Harrell
Joe Harrell

Another mentor-mentee pair at UC is Joe Harrell, associate vice president for facilities management, and his mentee, Luke Willman, assistant athletic director of marketing and branding. They believe that carefully planned monthly meetings and a commitment to confidentiality contribute to a valuable relationship.

“I can ask Luke what he’s working on and maybe take it from a different perspective,” Harrell says. “I can offer open, honest feedback without him worrying there’s some ulterior motive.”

“I could share things about my department, or my work-life balance,” Willman adds, “and Joe would be honest with me, but that information wouldn’t go past him. It allowed me to …  get more out of the relationship.”

Measuring Success
Because the programs at both Brown and UC are relatively new, gauging how well they are succeeding can be difficult. However, at Brown, Nabb says follow-up surveys with participants have revealed positive results. 

In all, 100 percent of mentee respondents rated Brown’s program as very or extremely effective, 91 percent said it helped them enhance their professional development, and 100 percent said it helped expand their network. Additionally, mentees reported feeling more self-confident, valued, and empowered because of the program.

For Willman and Harrell, the results of UC’s program aren’t necessarily judgments that can be quantified.

“We’re both numbers guys,” Willman says. “We both really want to put success into metrics, but I would say it’s more about the personal growth and the personal relationship. I not only consider Joe a mentor, I [also] consider him a friend, and the relationship has made me a better person at work.”

At Brown, LaFortune says her relationship with Locke has led to similar growth. She recalls meeting him for lunch at a restaurant where she wasn’t sure she would fit in. But, she says, her mentor made her feel at ease.

“When we walked in,” LaFortune says, “Rick … didn’t say I was his mentee or ‘she works for Brown.’ He introduced me as his colleague. That was so affirming. He made me feel like I belonged. And I think, a lot of times, for women and particularly for women of color, we don’t feel like we belong.”

She says watching Locke on the job has taught her a lot as well.

“He walks around campus and greets people by name,” she says. “It teaches me that wherever you are in life, you have to be grounded and stay humble, and always remember where you came from.”●

Dale Singer is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our December 2018 issue.