Setting the stage for effective mentorship—how much structure is too much?

I’ve chosen to study mentorship as my Masters of Adult Education research area because I don’t know much about mentorship theory and I realize the program needs some structure in order to improve mentor and student protege commitment.

Nonetheless, I’ve always been reluctant to impose too much structure in my own student-run Fuse Mentorship Program within the St. Lawrence College Advertising-Integrated Marketing program.

St. Lawrence College Advertising-IMC students mingle with their mentors at Megalos Restaurant

Perhaps that’s because I’m a wanderer by nature and I appreciate the value of following your heart and ambition and your own creative nature. I’ve always sensed that too much structure—too many chains—can prevent magic from happening.

So, for the last two years, I’ve allowed Fuse to ebb and flow organically. A few mentors have said they would like some structure, so we added a little. For example, a student executive member is now in charge of checking in monthly with students and mentors to see how things are going. We also have a contract that each participant signs promising to meet at least once a month. However, very few participants have honoured it.

I figured that’s because we’ve never asked them to sit down and really discuss it and consider what’s involved in fulfilling that agreement.

With this in mind, I’ve decided that a little structure might not be a bad thing. After all, Zachary has written several guidebooks on how to structure mentoring initiatives. Indeed, Zachary suggests all sorts of rules for mentoring relationships. I can see how this would be a good thing for partnerships in which the student and mentor need some hand holding.

Other researchers, such as Anderson and Shore, in Ethical issues and concerns associated with mentoring undergraduate students, talk about the potential for transformative learning in mentorship. They suggest that mentors of undergraduate students should focus on helping the students figure out what and who they want to be when they grow up as opposed to providing generative career guidance. I hope our mentors will do both.

Anyway, I can see that if you have such specific goals, you need some structure to make that happen, just like you can’t build a house you’ve designed without first building the foundations and scaffolding.

So this is the first year that I provided some real structure within the program. Instead of holding a casual mixer to launch the program for second-year students, we held a formal discussion and contract signing at a local restaurant last Wednesday.

I provided each student and mentor (local communications professionals) with a piece of paper that requested the pairs discuss five points on the page before signing the contract on the other side of the paper (the contract requires the pair to meet once per month).

The discussion points were as follows:
1. Barriers or obstacles they foresee in their relationship (e.g. things that might stop them from meeting)
2. Ways they will overcome these obstacles
3. Objectives of each person throughout the course of the partnership
4. Where, how, and when they will meet
5. That any time a meeting is cancelled, another is set up, so there’s always a meeting on the calendar

These discussion points were actually peppered throughout Zachary’s The Mentor’s Guide and The Mentee’s Guide but they fall far short of the rigorous structures she suggests.

St. Lawrence College business communications professor Frank Armstrong at the mixer with his own unofficial mentor Kathy Patterson

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s Fuse Mentorship mixer was the best ever and the sit-down one-on-one discussion was just what mentors and mentees needed to set the stage for their relationship. I’m now convinced that pre-relationship negotiation about ground rules, challenges, solutions, and objectives should begin any positive mentoring relationship.

Following the negotiation, next week, Fuse community liaison officer Tina Bloodworth will check in with each pair… And that’s about all the structure we’ll put in place this year.

In April, we’ll talk to mentors and their student proteges and ask them how their relationships are going. We’ll ask them if they feel they’d like more structure.

And, if they do, then we’ll provide a little more.

But we’ll still take things just one step at a time.


About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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4 Responses to Setting the stage for effective mentorship—how much structure is too much?

  1. Trevor says:

    Interesting stuff Frank! Nice video.

  2. Thanks, Trevor. I hope you are making more headway than me in the reading!

  3. Katherine Stanford says:

    Thank you for sending this link to your first-years!! The FUSE program looks so exciting … do we really have to wait until second year? The video is great!!

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