Why You Should Take a Librarian (or Two) to Lunch

By Caitlin P. Williams, Ph.D.

Mentoring, whether formal or informal, engages newer workers, acclimates them to organizational culture and grooms them for greater levels of responsibility. The workplace is changing: flatter organizations, fewer advertised positions and a higher degree of uncertainty characterize the “new normal.” These new circumstances present challenges, many of which can be met by developing strong mentoring relationships in the workforce. Mentoring styles and strategies are evolving to better serve workers’ current professional development needs. 

How Mentoring “Used to” Look

Ten years ago, mentoring programs that matched mentors and “mentees” or “protégés” flourished. In some programs, the “matching” of experienced and newer professionals was a formal and lengthy initiative. Other organizations encouraged a more spontaneous coming together of mentors and mentees. Most frequently, the mentoring programs were comprised of one mentor meeting with one mentee for a specific period of time – often with a specific agenda. 

The results of these earlier programs? Often, they went well and the younger professional (the “mentee”) gained a critical understanding of “how work got done” within the organization, along with helpful tips on how to move forward. For the mentor, there was often a sense of fulfillment and contribution. In other instances, however, mandated match-ups didn’t work out, or vague program goals didn’t translate into satisfying and successful results for either mentor or mentee. 

The Need for Mentoring Hasn’t Gone Away

Fast forward to the present time and we find ourselves engaged in a very different workplace – one in which everyone feels an urgency to get the work done – often with fewer resources and less time. Emails, voicemails, and texting often replace person-to-person and face-to-face communications. Departmental and organizational leadership changes more quickly – and in-depth professional development conversations just don’t seem to be possible. Additionally, there are fewer clearly identified tasks that one can accomplish to move up, and even knowing who to turn to with one’s career development questions is often unclear.

While the old mentoring model may not fit so well in today’s workplace, the need for mentoring has not gone away. Consider these challenges that younger librarians and seasoned professionals may face:

  • A mid-career librarian with eighteen years’ experience has made the leap to self-employment. She’s built a solid business plan and started taking on projects for new clients. But she misses the camaraderie of her old workplace. How does she develop a support network? How can she find others who are doing similar work?
  • A new graduate has been hired by a public library. He’s delighted and full of excitement about his new job. But since this is his first real professional position, he isn’t quite sure who is responsible for what, which people work in which parts of the library and how best to succeed in his new role. How does he figure this out?
  • A library executive working in a leadership role is feeling a bit stale – he’s productive, gets important initiatives launched and is often looked to for advice from other senior leaders. Yet something is missing. He is looking for a new challenge and isn’t sure how to reignite some passion for the work and the field he’s been in for over 22 years.
  • An LIS professional realizes that what got her hired ten years ago won’t get her promoted tomorrow. She knows her tech skills aren’t as strong as they should be – and she gets a bit overwhelmed trying to figure out just which technologies she should know more about. How can she decide what she needs to know – and who can help her get these important skills?
  • A part-time school librarian has just landed a full-time job at a public library. Her first week of work was exciting but a bit overwhelming. Who can she turn to when she has questions about how to make a successful transition?

All these professionals could benefit from mentoring – whether it’s done through a formal mentoring program or through a spontaneous informal mentoring meeting. To meet the realities of today’s workplace we need to expand our definition of mentoring to include any opportunity for seeking or offering support and information, either in response to a specific question or need, or as an agreed-upon professional relationship that extends over time and offers guidance and support across a wider range of topics. We also need to consider mentoring a more reciprocal activity than we may have defined it before. Perhaps while you are asking for support as you transition to a new position, you can offer to share an area of your own expertise with the person who is helping you!

Whether you’ve just graduated, or you’re looking for something to engage you after 25 years in the field, or you’re somewhere in between, mentoring can be extremely valuable. Consider these ideas for adding mentoring to your own professional action plan.

Create Your Own Mentoring Initiative

You don’t need to wait to be “tapped” for a mentoring program. Nor do you need to work in an organization that relies on formal mentoring to develop its employees. You can create your own! Your own mentoring initiative should be one that you’ve thoroughly thought through, and one that specifically targets your goals, addresses gaps in your knowledge, and increases your network and organizational savvy.

Here is how you can begin:

  • Identify your current needs and questions. If you’re in job-seeking mode, you may need to do some informational interviewing to learn more about organizations you’ve targeted for employment. If you’re a new hire, you may need to know the roles and types of influence held by different colleagues in your workplace (hint: these roles and spheres of influence aren’t ones that show up on the organizational chart!). If you need to get up to speed on a technology or new organizational initiative, you probably need to get more information from experienced colleagues who have special expertise or a history with the organization.
  • Once you’ve identified your needs, consider who you can learn from. Identify two or three people whose advice, wisdom or special expertise you could really use.
  • Next, determine how you can ask these people for their support and time. Of course everyone is busy and overwhelmed – that doesn’t mean they won’t help. Offer to take a colleague or even a person you admire but don’t know well (yet) to lunch – or out for a coffee. Chances are good that if you ask appropriately, they will be happy to give you a bit of time – and it will let them step away from their own desk for a while.
  • When you meet up, be gracious, thank them for their time and be clear about the type of help you’re seeking. Come prepared: take notes, ask thoughtful questions and thank them for whatever they have shared with you.
  • After your meeting, send a thank-you note. Follow up with them to let them know how you’ve used their advice. Clip and forward any article or piece of news you think will be of interest to them.
  • Keep the connection alive. Email or text them periodically – if possible stop by their office for a quick hello. People are starving for connection today – and a brief moment to stay in touch is often more appreciated that you realize.
  • Identify one or two individuals who you believe could really help accelerate your learning. Consider who could help you pick up skills in new technologies, help you best transition to a new management position or offer support for preparing for a promotion.
  • Once you’ve identified these individuals, consider how you would like to ask for their support and/or guidance. If you’d like to work with them over an extended period of time, consider what might be most workable for them. Also consider what would make it worthwhile for them. Can you offer some expertise they may find valuable? Can you reciprocate in any way? You may not know the answer to that question until you ask them – perhaps it’s assistance on a project they’re working on or maybe it’s offering your perspective (as a recent graduate) on outreach initiatives or new services to patrons.
  • If they’re willing to meet with you over time, be prepared and be flexible. Explain how you would like to benefit from the knowledge or wisdom they have. Then ask for their input. How would they like to go forward? What would be a workable arrangement for them? Again, be gracious and be prepared. It helps to set milestones and establish how often you’ll connect.
  • One more alternative to consider as you shape a mentoring initiative for yourself is group mentoring. Perhaps you and a colleague would like to set up meetings with “mentors” together. If you’re both at a similar place in your professional development, it’s likely you may have similar questions or developmental goals.
  • One more variation might be for you to have multiple mentors at once. If there are a couple goals you’re working on, you may benefit from the insight that two individuals, representing different areas of your organization or different generations or perspectives can offer.
  • Bottom line here: don’t be constrained by what you think a mentoring arrangement “should” look like – be creative and explore what options you have for growing in ways that work for you and for those you would like to learn from.

Make the Most of Organizational Mentoring Programs

Does your organization currently have a mentoring program in place? If it does, that’s great news for you – whether you’re new to the job and the field or you’re an experienced professional that wants to stay current and connected. Check out your organization’s program, and consider getting involved.

Here are some tips to get the most out of an organization-sponsored mentoring program.

  • If you’re a new or recent hire, ask your supervisor or HR about any ongoing mentoring programs inside your organization. Or, check out your local or regional chapter of professional associations you belong to – many have ongoing mentoring programs.
  • Before you sign up, check out the details of the program. Does it go for a specific length of time? Does the program have specific goals? How are participants matched up with others? Are your particular professional development goals taken into account? Is follow-up done after the program is over? Can you talk to others who are currently in the program?
  • Once you’re in the program, actively participate. This is your chance to stretch yourself, grow your network and learn new skills. Come prepared to be fully engaged in the program – arriving late or leaving early means losing precious opportunities.
  • Look for ways to leverage the relationships you make in the program. Are there ways you can stay in touch with those you truly enjoy interacting with? Perhaps you can join a committee together, have lunch once a month or simply share resources and support.
  • Don’t let the learning stop when the program does. Continue to leverage what you’ve learned, stay in touch with others in the program, put new knowledge to work and make certain you’ve added your participating in the mentoring program to your resume and your online portfolio. You might want to start a LinkedIn group with others from the program.

One of the most important things to remember as you’re considering mentoring options for your own growth: when it comes to learning new skills or reaching for new goals, forget age and tenure. You can be 55 and still learn an incredible amount of very helpful information and knowledge from a new professional in the field. Likewise, you can be 55 and offer incredibly valuable support, based on your own experiences and years practicing your “craft” to someone just starting out. Similarly, you can be fresh out of graduate school and considered the “go-to person” when it comes to social media and its value in engaging teens and young adults. In that case, let others know of your willingness to mentor them on your area of expertise. And don’t forget to consider what they can offer you, as well.