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A mentor can help you grow professionally

By Mary Jo Katras, program leader in family resiliency

Kitten with meme text that says "Excuse me, will you be my mentor?"

It’s performance review time again. This is when we look back on what we accomplished last year and set our plan of work (POW) for the coming year. The POW includes both program goals and our professional development goals.

The content of our plan of work provides us with the “nuts and bolts” of our work — it provides us with direction and in some sense serves as a road map that may take a few different twists and turns as the year unfolds. While our POW includes our program area’s goals, it also includes our professional development goals. These goals may include building skills around leadership of a project or a team, for example. Expanding networking skills to engage professionals at a local, state and national level, for another. Or you may want to learn how to share your work in a scholarly way.

Where do you turn to get support, encouragement and words of wisdom to achieve your professional development goals? Of course, your supervisor is a good place to start, but other people can help, too.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted adviser.” A mentor provides influence, guidance, or direction.

A constant presence

Jean W.  Bauer headshot.
Jean W. Bauer
And that brings me to one of the most important mentors in my life: Jean W. Bauer. I was fortunate to have Jean as my mentor when I was a graduate student and well into my career. Sadly, Jean lost her battle with cancer just over five years ago. However, rarely a day goes by without me thinking of her and wondering what she would do in certain situations.

From the first time I met Jean, her caring nature, generosity and professionalism shined through. She had this incredible skill that allowed her to focus in on a person's strengths and help them navigate the task at hand. She made mentoring a priority because she wanted to empower students and new professionals to be the best they could be. She provided guidance, set direction, and imparted wisdom, drawing from her years of experience as a professor in the Department of Family Social Science and an Extension specialist for the Center for Family Development.

Jean helped me focus on my individual strengths and at the same time, challenged me to grow in new and different ways. For example, I remember meeting with Jean as I took on a new role as a research associate. This role required me to facilitate large multi-state team meetings both in person and via conference call. (We did not have Google Meet back then!)

Jean also helped me think about the different tasks in facilitating and what each of those tasks involved. She asked me questions to get me thinking about how I wanted to lead in my new role. What kind of leader did I want to be? She gave me resources to read and shared a few of her own experiences.

This guidance helped me gain the confidence I needed to take on the tasks of facilitator and leader. As I took on these roles, I would regularly check back with Jean to talk about my experiences, get her advice on issues I was facing, and generally tap into her experience and expertise.

Issuing a challenge

Now that I am further along in my career, I serve as a mentor to others myself. I have seen mentorship from both sides. More than ever, I understand that the relationship between a mentor and a mentee is not a “one and done” interaction. Rather it is a trusting relationship built over time and through experience.

Some mentorship relationships begin with a formal invitation from a potential mentee to a potential mentor. Other mentorship relationships grow more organically.

I challenge you to think about an experienced, knowledgeable person in your life who could help you grow professionally. Next, be bold. Ask that person out for lunch or coffee. Or ask to chat over Google Meet if they work in another community.

If you take this leap, you may learn something new. Or perhaps you’ll find a life-long mentor as I did with Jean.

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