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Why Mentoring Rocks

This is about two women, a blog, and a statewide mentoring program.

I recently had to write a midway review for my participation in the 2007-2008 Sunshine State Library Leadership Institute — also known as the “mentoring program.”

Mentors are like favorite aunts. We can hone in on helping our mentees with a focus that isn’t always possible from the most caring supervisor. Cheryl has a bucket of great ideas, a passion for librarianship, and a genuine heart. As we worked our way through the goals process and listed all the things she could do, it became clear that she had an idea pulling at her sleeve: a poetry blog that would serve poets, readers, and librarians in this part of the country.

So The Poetry Scene lives — and it’s marvelous. Talk about a focused site for under-served populations!

For all the other activities she’s done in the program, Cheryl’s ability to start with two things she cared about — poetry and librarianship — and turn them into a living, breathing service is the standout example of what a joy it has been to be part of her world.

As I summarized the value this program has had for me, I realized that my relationship with Cheryl, my mentee, has also reinforced lessons learned over the past decade.

As a junior manager, I thought the “people” side of work was a chore to be dealt with as hastily as possible, and that my own skills were my central contribution. But in several successive jobs I learned that it’s not about me, it’s about the people I work with. I needed to back off, be less invested in “my way,” listen more carefully, go fight for the tools and training and time they need to do their job, know when to hold my breath and be patient while they figured things out for themselves, and help tip back the bushel so their lights would shine.

In many cases people have terrific skills and potential, and they don’t need “larnin'” as much as they need a cheerleader — someone to coach them to their natural excellence and ensure them that their ideas can really take root. They also need someone who just plain cares about them and is in their corner for their success. There is no shiny new tool, no public accolade, no triumphant “win” that can hold even the feeblest dimestore birthday-candle glimmer to the warmth you can experience by helping someone else fill the world with their brilliant light.

Supervision is tough work, and mentoring (by definition a highly self-selected relationship) only exposes us to the fun, cool side of it. I can’t imagine a mentoring relationship where I’d have to tell someone that her job was eliminated or that she smelled. (It’s actually harder to tell someone they smell — and I mean pee-yew, “patrons are talking” odiferous. A decade later, and I can still feel my blood pressure rise just thinking about that conversation.) Mentoring relationships also sidestep the boring, routine paperwork, the picayune tasks, and the quotidian slog.

But participating in the mentoring program has been a deeply satisfying reminder of my own progress as a professional — and what it means to be a part of someone’s success. I can have a strong, happy career without ever supervising again (much as I’m a Real Woman without having had a child), but if that’s my career trajectory, I’m going to make a point of being a “favorite aunt” as often as possible.

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