Mentoring Stories

Think about a time in your life when you were involved, in some way, with mentoring. Maybe you were a student, grappling with a question, seeking guidance and you found someone whom inspired and empowered you. Maybe you were a professor or an advisor, and you could see clearly that something you did for a student or a younger colleague gave the boost they needed to persevere and overcome an obstacle and move forward on their career paths.

Whether as the mentor or the person being mentored, we’ve all experienced occasions when for whatever reason – timing, chemistry, opportunity – good counsel made a big difference. We also remember the not-so-good mentoring, when we were disappointed by an advisor or by the inability of someone to accept our help, no matter how hard we tried. We’ve known good and bad mentors and because of those experiences we begin to understand what does and doesn’t work.

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Last month, Knowinnovation facilitated a ASM-LINK Mentoring Strategies Workshop adjacent to the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) conference in San Antonio. As we designed the workshop, we chose to focus on the stories about what worked, the mentoring that had a positive impact. Although KI values the opportunities to learn from mistakes, we also know sometimes focusing on fixing what hasn’t worked keeps us from capitalizing on what does work. Sometimes simply doing more of what works strengthens the impact of our efforts enough to build the kind of momentum that helps to sprint over the hurdles that stopped us before. Then the things that weren’t working become irrelevant, or they get fixed as a byproduct of the momentum that’s been built.

This is the strategy of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which is the process KI used as the structure for the 3-day workshop. A lot of KI’s work is built on the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process, which probes into the problem space, exploring the gaps between current reality and ideal state. For this mentoring workshop, we chose the AI approach to identify the mentoring activities that are working and to capitalize on them. Not to sweep the problems under the rug, but to first focus on the initiatives that have had an impact, to learn what’s working and why, so this might be replicated in other initiatives.

We did this by storytelling.

Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, is known for her storytelling. As a research scientists she was reluctant to accept the label, until she realized that “maybe stories are just data with a soul.” A Forbes article about Brown put it succinctly: “Data wrapped in stories have the ability to move people, to inspire people to take action.” We hoped this would be the case at the mentoring workshop.

At first, we invited the participants to tell their success stories to each other. Seated at round tables, they took turns talking about something they’d done which had resulted in a positive outcome. Storytellers were encouraged to give detail and not to be modest. Listeners prompted to make notes and borrow ideas and look for common themes. Sharing these stories helped the participants to discover what contributes to successful mentoring. We even collected them in a Wiki, that the group will be able to use as a resource.

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The next day we asked participants to tell stories about an ideal future, ten (or more) years from now. We urged them to imagine the best possible outcomes that could result from their mentoring efforts. They were encouraged to dream in detail, and to tell their future stories in the present tense, as if they’d already happened.

We’d wondered – worried is too strong a word, but wondered – what kind of stories this exercise would produce. Would they be useful? Would participants be willing to dream out loud? Would the stories be specific enough?

It wasn’t a problem. When it was time to tell these stories of the future, there were plenty of details and a lot of inspiration. And once everyone had told their stories, the participants mixed and morphed into small groups, based on similar or parallel stories, and mapped out the designs they’d need to put in place to make those future stories come true. Sure, there are still problems to solve, hurdles to overcome. But focusing on an ideal future pulled us all toward it. Now we’re looking forward to seeing and hearing just how these stories unfold.

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Know Further: Learn more about the Leaders Inspiring Networks and Knowledge (LINK) program, jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Knowinnovation is partnering with SUNY Buffalo State to investigate broadening underrepresented minority participation in environmental biology, and you can read about the process and the outcomes here. Read up on Appreciative Inquiry, and read even further about AI in tandem with CPS.