Mentoring Approaches: A Study in Contrasts

I used to work in museums. And there were generally two ways to break into the field. The first was to work an entry-level job and eventually move your way up. You would spend your first couple of years being an assistant to someone, answering phones, stuffing envelopes, and staffing fundraisers, with the idea being that you would already have your foot in the door when a better job came open. The second was to take on a position of high responsibilities in a tiny, understaffed (because underfunded) organization. That’s the route I took.

I worked on a staff of 4, which became a staff of 3, and then 2, and so I was in way over my head. And with nobody to mentor me because again: understaffed and underfunded.

Hopefully times are different now, because even then, in 2006, when I reached out to the larger well-established museum in town practically BEGGING someone to mentor me, I got no reply. At all.

Our collapsing museum was the laughing stock of town, because we were tiny and broke. And rather than lend a helping hand, the name-brand museum just up the road literally did not respond. When I eventually did get through to someone who agreed to meet with me, they literally laughed at me. Not behind my back. Right there. Right in front of me.

I never got a response to my questions on how to problem-solve.

I never got an email asking how they could help or to check in.

I never heard from or saw them again.

It wouldn’t surprise me if, to this day, staff there still hear some ‘hilarious’ tale of how right before that old-fashioned museum down the road closed, the only remaining professional came asking for help, as if there was anything that could be worth saving LOL.

I’m still furious about it, as you can tell.

I had never seen the benefit of joining the museum workforce as an entry-level gofer before. I was ambitious, I am smart, I knew this was the career for me, I got easily bored, and I didn’t want to just be some flunky filing my nails on the job, waiting for a shot.

But then, in the midst of trying to keep a failing museum afloat on the precipice of a recession, I met a guy whose job was a business development consultant. And he explained that he sees this all the time. When you put someone who is smart but hasn’t yet had enough training and experience in charge of a department or an organization, it is a recipe for failure.

Bingo. He was right. What I had framed clearly as my own failure, not trying hard enough, not making my needs statement dire enough, not working at the ‘right’ kind of museum, resulted in me trying to fix it myself. I was scrambling 24/7, literally working nights and weekends, trying to problem-solve my way out of a hole from which even the most experienced professional could not have climbed.

This was not my own problem.

This wasn’t the community’s problem.

This was a problem endemic to the profession.

Just because I was smart, and had an academic background in museums, did not mean that I was equipped to manage multiple enormous projects, recruit, train and supervise all volunteers and staff, carry out programs, fundraise, network, research, do outreach, do collections management, and keep a flailing nonprofit afloat.

I had never had someone in the museum field to mentor or coach me on the job. When I was in grad school, I had to learn to ‘museum’ on my own. There were no faculty in my grad program who knew what skills and knowledge I would need to succeed in museums, nor contacts who could help. When I bopped around from part-time gig to part-time gig (because that’s all there was), nobody was interested in molding my long-term professional development. I was just another contract worker hired to get one exhibit done or a collection processed before funding ran out.

And so, when I took the route of “look for the job with the more impressive job title,” because I didn’t want to be “assistant to the curator’s assistant,” there was nobody to coach me on the implications of that decision. Lured by the impressive job title, I landed in a museum so small that there was nobody who could shepherd my professional development. I didn’t have models of how to handle X,Y, or Z to emulate.

I realized that I needed help. So reached out to the name-brand museum just a mile or two away to look for support. I took the initiative to reach out and ask for help. How could I break these problems down into more manageable tasks? What could I slide to the back burner to make room for the most pressing needs? And where else could I connect with resources and support?

In agreeing to meet with me, but with zero intention of help, the staff members tricked me into spilling my museum’s dark secrets and problems, so that they could all have a good laugh at my expense, a new anecdote to share at the next cocktail party.

It was made VERY clear in no uncertain terms that because I had foolishly chosen my own career path, rather than properly working my way up through the channels of their name-brand museum that I was to be given no access to the vault of professional knowledge.

After I was laid off (because recession), I went looking for work in higher ed.

Where I found the complete opposite culture of support. My very first boss who hired me was a natural mentor. She operated from a position of nurturing my abilities, building my knowledge, and trusting even her beloved projects to me. I credit her with teaching me everything that I needed to know to start off successfully.

She was critical to my initial success on the job. But mentoring did not stop with her. She put me in touch with an extremely influential mover and shaker on my campus, who shepherded me through new responsibilities and bigger projects. She taught me to have confidence in my own abilities to rise to the challenge. And *that woman* put me in touch with someone in the Provost’s office, who ran a formal mentoring program.

And it just kept going. I became a mentor for my college, I then joined the mentoring network in my two professional societies, and have ultimately came to run my own mentoring program, a few years later.

I believe so strongly in the notion that you didn’t get to where you are without support, without cheerleaders, without both overt and behind-the-scenes advocacy. It’s a huge part of the reason I share what I have learned and continue to learn in this blog. But it’s not just the individual it benefits; it’s also the entire profession.

To this day, I continue to need mentors. Plural. For various things. To help pick me up when work is challenging. To reassure me that my read on something isn’t entirely crazy. To help me wayfind how I’m going to get from here to my next. To help me find the gatekeeper to the information I need.

And I no longer have any patience or time for professions or organizations that don’t engender the exact same outlook. Especially in this day and age, I just don’t understand how any profession or organization feels that anyone who wants to contribute to the field and learn how to add value benefits from getting left out of this critical professional development. I certainly hope (and expect) that museums have gotten better, but to be honest, I have no idea.

There shouldn’t be any top-secret codes to break or hazing to survive in order to figure out how you can get better in your career. If you don’t have at least one trusted mentor, one who creates a safe-space in which you can talk about whatever you’re facing, find one.

Can’t find one?

I continue to mentor others in return. Anyone who needs it, anyone who asks for it. It’s a way for me to give back, seeing all that my higher ed predecessors, leaders, and colleagues have given to me.