Four mentoring styles

MentoringMentoring has developed a lot over recent years, not least because the internet means that your mentor doesn’t have be local to you anymore. Gone are the days when mentoring meant vague chats about career aspirations over coffee. Instead, we have video, voice and text chats, email, forums, and shared documents, and a level of flexibility and variety in mentor relationships that yesterday’s mentees could only dream of.

That flexibility is exemplified by the four different types of modern mentorships: one-to-one, reverse, process and group. Which style is right for you depends a lot on what you want to get out of the mentoring relationship, but you don’t need to stick to just one style, or just have one mentor. You can mix and match to meet your needs and can change up your mentoring relationship style as you and your circumstances change. So, what are these four different approaches to mentoring?

One-to-one

Traditional mentoring pairs a senior employee with a junior colleague so that the latter can ask for advice from someone who’s been there and done that. When mentor and mentee are well paired, valuable and long-term professional relationships can be created, benefiting both mentor and mentee.

The stereotypical one-to-one pairing imagines a very senior mentor with a still-wet-behind-the-ears mentee, but realistically it’s better to have a mentor who’s just a little bit more experienced than you, one who can remember what it’s like to be in your shoes. And that mentor can themselves be a mentee of someone more senior. ‘Mentor’ isn’t a job title that you graduate into once you’re senior enough, it’s a temporary mantle that you wear whilst you help someone else, and you can wear it at almost any point in your career.
One-to-one mentorships tend to be focused on personal and professional development, on improving soft and transferrable skills, and on guiding you through a particular phase in your career.

Reverse

As the name suggests, reverse mentoring sees a more junior employee mentoring a senior colleague in a one-to-one mentorship relationship. Again, reverse mentoring has its stereotypes, of a technologically savvy new hire helping pre-retirement board members access their email and learn about new-fangled things like social media. But again, the stereotypes don’t do this form of mentoring justice.

Reverse mentoring is immensely valuable in bridging generational divides, helping older colleagues understand the culture, needs and values of younger generations. It’s also valuable for senior colleagues to understand the day-to-day experiences of and challenges faced by junior colleagues, through which they can better understand their own business and staff, and effect valuable cultural change. If a business wants to improve staff retention and reduce churn, reverse mentoring is one valuable way to understand what changes need to be made.

It’s also valuable for the more junior mentor, who gets an insight into the challenges management are facing and can learn about leadership and the business decision making process.

Process

Sometimes, you need help to get you through a particular task, perhaps because it’s new to you and you need the wisdom and experience of someone who has done it before. Or maybe it’s complicated and you could just do with a second pair of eyes to help sense-check your decisions. You might be applying for a promotion for the first time, or organising an event or meeting, or submitting your first scientific paper, or just trying to get a bit of code to work properly.

Process mentoring can be very a short experience, just long enough to get a decision made or something fixed, or it can be a relationship that lasts for months or years. It all depends on the specific process that you’re working your way through. But process mentoring is a common and valuable form of mentoring which is focused on discrete, tangible outcomes and with a clear endpoint. Process mentoring is suited to both one-to-one mentoring relationships and groups mentoring.

Group

Group mentoring is far more common than perhaps we realise. From formal tutor groups or advisory councils to Facebook groups, Slack channels and even Twitter, we’ve all asked groups of friends, colleagues and contacts for help at one point or another. Group mentoring, where the mentee asks for help from a group in the hope that one or two people might have had relevant experience is such a fundamental human behaviour that we do it all the time in all sorts of contexts.

Being a part of a community that has expressly gathered in order to mentor and be mentored can be invaluable. Indeed, a recent study of MBA students indicated that successful women surround themselves with a close inner circle of other women who can “share private information about things like an organization’s attitudes toward female leaders, which helps strengthen women’s job search, interviewing, and negotiation strategies.”

Because group mentoring is often ad hoc and informal, it can be a great way to start your mentoring journey, and can help you find people working in your industry that you’d like to either mentor or be mentored by.

Has the leaky pipeline really been fixed?

Female plumberThe ‘leaky pipeline’ is a familiar metaphor to those interested in discussions of women in STEM. The pipeline – the process of going from school to undergraduate level and on into academia until reaching professorship – is seen to leak people, particularly women and minorities, at each successive rung of the academic ladder. Despite its ubiquity, there are growing concerns that the leaky pipeline metaphor is harmful and inaccurate.

A recent paper by David Miller and Jonathan Wai suggests that the pipeline is no longer leaking. The paper examined the percentage of students who go from undergraduate level to PhD level using retrospective analyses of data from US citizens. The data itself seems sound, as do the analyses, but I am concerned about the conclusions drawn.  The authors found that while women, in general, used to be awarded PhDs at a lower rate than their male undergraduate counterparts, this is no longer the case: the sexes have converged. This means that male and female undergraduates are equally likely to continue their academic studies. Wonderful news! The pipeline has been fixed!

Well, not so fast. The paper has examined a very particular point in the academic career: the transition from the undergraduate level where a student is really trying to gauge their level of interest in a subject while putting off the whole ‘find a job’ thing for a few years, to the postgraduate level where they feel they may have some real interest and aptitude for their chosen field and would like to pursue it further (and maybe put off that whole ‘find a job’ thing for a few more years!). While obviously it is great to know that women are no longer systematically biased against when it comes to being accepted for PhDs, that step is only one on the long route to becoming a fully fledged academic. And, as the authors point out:

“…the pipeline metaphor may be an apt description of academic transitions after the Ph.D. Academic pathways are considerably more rigid after the Ph.D. degree than before the bachelor’s degree.” [p8]

The paper is cautious and focused in its conclusions, which is as scientific research should be. However, from an online article written by one of the co-authors, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the leaky pipeline metaphor was now dead:

“…new research of which I am the coauthor shows this pervasive leaky pipeline metaphor is wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering.”

The paper, however, does not say that, and the data doesn’t support such an assertion. It’s bad enough when press officers overhype research due a lack of understanding of the work, but to see an actual author misrepresent their research is extremely disappointing.

So, as much as we might wish it to be true, this paper doesn’t support the idea that the leaky pipeline has been completely sealed. But what about its use as a metaphor? Well, there are two sides to any metaphor: those of accuracy and utility. It appears that despite some areas where cautious optimism may be applied, as shown above, the metaphor is still largely accurate. But is it useful?

The main problem with the metaphor is that it implies that the leak needs to be fixed. Yet the pipeline must leak. In the UK alone there were 98,000 students accepted onto STEM course in 2013. There aren’t enough academic positions for all those students to be employed, and the country would be significantly worse off if all those students decided to work in academia rather than take their skills to other employment sectors where they would make a beneficial contribution.

Specifically in the context of women in STEM, there are concerns that the leaky pipeline metaphor is harming the discussion. That by saying that every woman who leaves academic STEM is a loss, a great deal of internalised pressure is placed on women to pursue careers they are unhappy with and it creates a feeling a failure when they decide to follow a different career path. As Andrew Penner points out, by referring to the leaky pipeline:

“we risk trivializing the contributions of women and men who choose to pursue other endeavors when we define success as becoming a STEM professor at a research university“.

Matthew Cannady and colleagues recently examined the way in which the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor fails. They explain that:

“. . . a metaphor positing that those who “leak out,” presumably into a drain, are lost to STEM fails to recognize that there are careers that may not require a STEM bachelor’s degree but do require STEM knowledge and skills and contribute to the public good. The fact that the pipeline metaphor does little to illuminate the paths of mathematics or science educators, or scientifically literate citizens, further challenges its usefulness.” [pp446]

The metaphor, while sadly accurate, appears to be more of a hindrance than a help when trying to discuss and improve women’s representation in academic science. It may be time to find a new metaphor, one that properly appreciates that there are many career choices that allow women, and men, to make use of their scientific training. However, it remains a fact that women are still being excluded from the higher echelons of academia, and whilst that remains true we will all lose out.

The guest post by Sarah Hearne was originally published in April 2015.

Should you be worried about ‘cultural fit’?

Female engineerWhen you hear of companies ‘interviewing for cultural fit’, that often means that recruiters are looking for someone with a specific set of attitudes, assumptions and biases that they think will fit neatly into the existing cultural framework of the company. This can be problematic because it can damage efforts to increase diversity, resulting in a workforce that may look diverse but is actually made up of people who all think the same way. Says the Harvard Business Review:

“We might be creating a situation in which companies will be very diverse in appearance, but intrinsically homogenous. They will be hiring the same profile of people even though they might have very different backgrounds. Thus the company will appear diverse — but we know that appearances can be deceiving.”

That doesn’t mean that culture isn’t important, but from the candidate’s point of view, not the employer. The important cultural question is, does this company’s culture fit with my personal values?

If, as a woman in STEM, you rate a company’s ethics and culture highly, you are not alone. The Futuretrack study by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit found that “socially useful work” ranked higher than “competitive salary” in qualities graduates were looking for in jobs. And women were more likely than men to say that “the opportunity to perform socially useful work or work for an ethical organisation” was important.

Interviews are a two-way street

Interviews are always a two-way street: You are evaluating your future employer just as much as they are evaluating you.

“I’d recommend thinking about the characteristics of a business culture where you’d be happy and successful,” suggests Caroline Plumb, founder of Fluidly. “What type of place gets the best out of you and why. Then think about what you can bring to that sort of business, how you’d be able contribute and how you’d shape it. Demonstrate what you can bring and add, rather than how you ‘fit’.”

As you’re searching for jobs to apply for, take a look at the company’s background try to find out what kind of culture they have.

“Do a little research before the interview to find out what to expect from the company’s workplace culture, and check that your values are aligned,” says Inga Rudzitis, Operations Manager from Float. “I’d always encourage people to be open and honest in an interview, so it’s not really different for questions about cultural fit. If the company’s values fit with your own then you can just answer from the heart, which always come across better than an overly rehearsed answer that could be completely fabricated. I know that can be really difficult advice to hear when you’re job-hunting as it can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to “get it right”, but the thing about culture is that there isn’t a right and a wrong type. Some people just prefer different types of working culture, so questions about culture aren’t about determining your skill or your value.”

Faye Whitlock, head of talent at GoCardless, an online payments provider, suggests that candidates “can often get a great insight into a company’s culture through its website, LinkedIn and other social media channels.”

Ask about culture in your interview

If it’s not clear what kind of culture a company has, or if you’re not sure about whether you’d like to work there, don’t be afraid to bring it up in the interview.

“You can always ask your interviewer or recruiter for guidance on these too if it isn’t apparent,” says Whitlock. “We like to be asked why we enjoy working at GoCardless, or what are opportunities there are for career progression. A good question is “What’s a typical day in the life like…” We try to have people with different departments, tenure and seniority [in an interview], so people can ask about different cultural aspects of the company.”

Rudzitis explains, “We try to be quite upfront about what our culture is like so that applicants have a good idea of what to expect. For example, in our job ads for engineering roles we bring attention to the fact that our engineering team works closely with our marketing team because in lots of companies these departments are really separated from each other, in terms of physical distance as well communications, decision-making, and working practices. We also like to show interviewees our office and introduce them to a few members of the team, so we don’t get a huge number of questions about our culture as applicants can see what it’s like for themselves.

“When we last hired for a part-time role we got quite a few questions about that: how many others worked part-time and how that would impact the way they worked with others. We’ve also been asked before why we like working at Float and what would be challenging in a particular role. It’s great to hear questions like this because it also tells us something about what the applicant is looking for in work culture, and we can improve our future job adverts to make sure we’re really getting across why we think Float is a great place to work.”

Culture is important, but as a metric for you as a potential employee to decide whether you will be happy working for a particular company.

 

Xero logoThis post was originally written for the Finding Ada Online Careers Fair for Women in STEM which was sponsored by Xero, a beautiful, easy-to-use online accounting software for small businesses and their advisors. It has over one million subscribers in more than 180 countries, with more than 250,000 of those in the UK.

How to identify and develop essential soft skills

Soft skillsSoft skills are in great demand but short supply, according to many employers. But what are they? Soft skills are often described as being personality-based behaviours, such as working well in a team, taking direction, managing your time, and communicating clearly. Hard skills are related to your specific area of expertise, so being able to develop software is a hard skill, but collaborating with your colleagues is a soft skill.

“At Fluidly we believe that engineering is a team sport so ‘soft’ skills are very important to us and we assess for them for every role,” says Fluidly founder, Caroline Plumb. “In particular, curiosity, communication, and empathy for people and customers are key skills we look for. We believe this makes the team stronger, product development faster (& more enjoyable) and customer experience far better. Technically brilliant candidates who don’t have these skills aren’t a fit for us – they might be talented individuals but we are looking for the people who make the team perform.”

Excellent soft skills are essential for small teams, as Inga Rudzitis, Operations Manager at Float points out: “We’re a fairly small team and we really pride ourselves on being one team. We don’t like to silo ourselves, so we work cross-departmentally all the time. This means soft skills like communication and teamwork are key for us. We’re also really interested in people’s potential, not only their past experience. Soft skills are typically the most transferable, so they’re a really meaningful part of understanding somebody’s potential.”

And as Faye Whitlock, head of talent at GoCardless, an online payments provider, points out, soft skills are important even in technical assessments. “Candidates are informed that we’re not looking simply at their coding skills and problem solving,” she  says, “but collaboration and communication [as well]”.

Soft skills to develop

Our societal perceptions of soft skills do come with a gender bias that we, as individuals, need to be aware of. Women are often assumed to be good at communication and men are assumed to be good leaders, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t improve their communications skills, or that they can’t be good leaders. Of all the soft skills that women should focus on developing, Rudzitis believes that assertiveness should be at the top of the list.

“It’s a word that can get a bad rap because people confuse it with aggression, but that’s a real misrepresentation. It’s also not a personality type, it really is a skill that you can practise. When I chose to focus on improving my assertiveness it made a huge difference to my working life and it ultimately led me to joining the world of tech startups and working at Float.

“At its heart, assertiveness is all about being open and honest. It’s bound up with a host of other great soft skills such as active listening, communication, delegation, and receiving feedback well. It’s about learning to understand and value your own needs and opinions, expressing those appropriately, as well as being empathetic towards other people’s. Being more assertive can dramatically improve your management skills, relationships with other people, and your own happiness in your role.”

Women need to learn not to undersell themselves, Whitlock says. “Don’t be afraid of applying for jobs that feel like they may be out of your comfort zone. We think that a candidate’s attitude, motivation and aptitude for the role are more important than just a checklist of experience that they’ve done it all before.”

What are your strongest soft skills?

Of course, it’s easy to see soft skills in others, but slightly harder to know how good your own soft skills are. Plumb suggests that, if you want to understand your own soft skills repertoire, ask others for to tell you what they think your strengths and weaknesses are.

“Good people to seek input from are peers, reports, a line manager, a senior leader and someone outside the reporting line but who is also a stakeholder,” perhaps in a different team, says Plumb. “It’s good to get a wide range of opinions from people who’ve seen [you] in different circumstances, from succeeding to being up against it and under pressure. Ask open questions and listen hard for the answers without being defensive.”

Whitlock agrees: “Ask for feedback, always! We’re big fans of proactively asking for feedback on a daily basis, be it in spontaneous casual conversation or by emailing people after a project or meeting to ask about what they should keep doing and what they can improve. To candidates, ask for more detailed feedback to the recruiter.”

Rudzitis also suggests self-reflection as “a really valuable and under-appreciated practice. Whenever I get frustrated about something going on (at work or at home), I try to think about why I got so annoyed, why I responded the way I did. What result did I want from that situation and how would I try responding differently if this happened again? More often than not, this usually flags something I realise I should probably work on for myself. It can be really empowering because you learn to focus on what you can change, rather than blaming external circumstances or things beyond your control.”

Practice, practice, practice

It’s also a good idea to develop your soft skills outside of a work context. “Communication skills could be improved through drama, a toastmaster course or even comedy classes,” says Plumb. “Leadership could be for a project rather than running a team, or organising a large group activity. Think about opportunities to develop, make a plan of what you’re going to try and then reflect on it afterwards. The best way is to keep trying and learning – it doesn’t have to be perfect, some of the best learnings can come from the worse outcomes.”

That kind of self-development takes “bravery and practice,” says Rudzitis. “The more you practise something, the better you get at it. Sometimes it’s hard to take those steps though, which is where the bravery comes in. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, skills like networking can be so daunting, but ultimately you’ll never get better if you don’t take the plunge and give it a go. And then another go, and another!”

Rudzitis recommends that, in an interview, you use “the STAR method, describing the Situation, Task, Action taken, and Result” to illustrate your soft skills. “How did you identify the problem and analyse the situation that led you there? How did you communicate and work with others to solve the problem? Sometimes it can also be helpful to explain why you opted against an alternative course of action, as this can show a different side to your decision-making skills and an awareness that there are other ways of working.”

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to those in business that you think are particularly strong in a skill you want to develop and ask for their support and advice,” Whitlock advises. “You’ll be surprised by how much of a compliment this it to them and that they’ll usually be more than happy to help.”

Soft skills are very important to employers across the board, so when you’re writing your CV and preparing for an interview, spend some time reviewing your own soft skills and think about how you can most effectively communicate them. Demonstrating strong soft skills will help you gain the attention of recruiters and land that job!

 

Xero logoThis post was originally written for the Finding Ada Online Careers Fair for Women in STEM which was sponsored by Xero, a beautiful, easy-to-use online accounting software for small businesses and their advisors. It has over one million subscribers in more than 180 countries, with more than 250,000 of those in the UK.

Could flexible working be right for you?

Woman working in cafeIf you’re returning to the workforce after a career break, fractional – the new name for part-time work – or flexible work might be exactly what you need to get you back in the swing of things. With the competition for STEM talent heating up, more and more companies are offering flexible working schedules.

“Returners often need to balance their return into the workforce with a decreasing caring workload, eg as children go to school,” says Caroline Plumb, founder of Fluidly, cash flow management software.

People are attracted to fractional and flexible working arrangements for many reasons, not least of which is balancing work with caring responsibilities, which still rest predominantly on women’s shoulders.

A ‘fractional’ job is a part-time role where the employee works for a specified fraction of a full-time equivalent (FTE) role, for example a 0.5FTE role would be for half of a standard 35-40 hour working week. Flexible roles allow employees to choose when they work, often including hours outside the standard work day. They may also include the option to work from home. Both fractional and full-time roles can be worked flexibly.

Flexible working offered as standard

In the UK, anyone who has been employed for six months may request flexible or fractional working, and companies are increasingly offering fractional and flexible roles as standard.

Inga Rudzitis, Operations Manager from Float, a cash flow forecasting app, says, “Our founder, Colin Hewitt, has always been keen for Float to be a family-friendly place to work, so we’ve always been flexible about things like school runs and making it to sports day.”

“I think it’s important for employers to think about this intentionally and build this into their values so that there’s trust and employees feel comfortable managing their work and personal lives. If you lay this foundation, you can adapt to people’s changing circumstances and have open conversations about what needs to change and what will work for all parties,” she says.

Exactly how these roles are managed can vary not just from company to company, but from employee to employee.

“As someone who’s personally taken three periods of maternity, my experience is that there is no one-size-fits-all process for any returning process,” says Plumb. “Employers need to support not just with a variety of potential working arrangements, but easing the transitions around returning – from building confidence, ensuring there are no limits on potential and being willing to flex arrangements over time as needs change and children grow up.”

Rudzitis agrees: “By its very nature, flexible working can mean so many different things! There are some structured methods, such as specifying core hours, but for us at Float it’s more of an attitude. We know that people have lives outside of work, so being flexible means being adaptive to people’s circumstances. Sometimes people will leave early to do the school run and work from home for the rest of the afternoon, others prefer to stay a bit later in the office and have more of the morning to themselves.”

Flexible working is not just for carers

Not all flexible workers choose that model because of caring commitments. It’s also valuable for those who want to get more qualifications, or for students who are transitioning from a higher degree into the workforce.  

“I started working part time on four days a week to give me time to finish my post-graduate degree,” says Rudzitis, “and decided to continue working this way after graduating. So flexible working for us includes some remote and fractional working.”

When we talk about remote working, where staff work from a location that’s not the office, we often think about jobs such as software development where workers need to spend a lot of time focused on specific tasks. But the very nature of flexible working is, itself, flexible.

“I think any kind of role can be flexible,” says Rudzitis, “you’ve just got to be intentional about how you set it up. You’ve got to know what’s important to you, and how that can work with different types of working patterns. If team meetings are important, make sure any remote workers can join via video call, and make sure they get a chance to speak. Make sure that your part time workers can join by scheduling them at the right time.”

Communication is key

A lot of employers now use communications software that makes flexible working even easier. Tools like Slack, video calling, Google Drive, Dropbox and even project wikis are often used by teams even when they are sitting next to one another at the office, so extending that to provide a communications platform for remote workers is easy.

“We use Slack to communicate a lot,” says Rudzitis, “even when we’re in the office, so people who are working from home don’t miss out on the important things that are being discussed. Having said that, as a company we’re looking ahead to the future and are considering whether we might want to set up an international office in a year or two, so we’ve already started to talk about how we’d manage that.”

Fractional and flexible roles are becoming more common as the technology improves, and as attitudes become more accepting. Some industries, such as engineering, are so short of skilled employees that companies are radically rethinking how they work and how they can tempt women back into the workforce.

If you’re finishing off a doctorate, caring for elderly relatives, or would like to work alongside caring for your children, then fractional and flexible working could be for you.

 

Xero logoThis post was originally written for the Finding Ada Online Careers Fair for Women in STEM which was sponsored by Xero, a beautiful, easy-to-use online accounting software for small businesses and their advisors. It has over one million subscribers in more than 180 countries, with more than 250,000 of those in the UK.