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Business Officer Magazine

Insights: Susan Aldridge on Succession Mentoring

Susan Aldridge, president of the University of Maryland University College, discusses the role of mentoring in professional development.

By Bronté Jones

*Susan Aldridge is president of University of Maryland University College, the largest state university in the United States and among the nation's fastest-growing virtual campuses. As one of 12 presidents appointed to a commission of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to study how the United States can improve its system of higher education, Aldridge is determined not only to equip students to thrive in a global economy, but also to help future college and university leaders expand their knowledge and expertise.

In this Business Officer interview, Aldridge describes how mentoring is taking shape in organizations today, with an emphasis on efficiency and a strong tie to succession planning.

First, how would you define mentoring?

Historically, the term mentor comes from the epic poem The Odyssey. When Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, set off for the Trojan War, he entrusted his kingdom to Mentor, his adviser. Mentor served as a role model to the king's young son, who in turn became Mentor's apprentice. So, it's no wonder that the term mentoring conjures up images of an exalted leader grooming and anointing his or her protege. And in fact, over the years many organizations have had formal mentoring programs in which a select few were handpicked and teamed up with senior leaders in the organization to either shadow or work directly with those leaders for several months or even a full year.

Today, most leaders simply don't have that kind of time, given the type of fast-paced environment in which we work and the critical organizational challenges we need to attend to on a daily basis. That's not to say that one-on-one mentoring no longer takes place, but I think these relationships are less prevalent, less formal, and less intense than in the past.

So, is there less emphasis overall on mentoring today?

No, but I think that the focus is different and that an evolution is taking place with regard to our conception of the mentor-mentee relationship. With the exception of a supervisory role, where we really are grooming a person who works directly for us, there is usually less structure involved. Today, there is greater attention on developing intellectual capital and creating an organizational culture of knowledge exchange in which talented people across the institution support and assist each other. Senior leaders are still perfectly willing to impart their knowledge and experience to those aspiring to move forward with their careers, but they're doing so more often within groups in professional development settings.

Is this something that higher education is doing well?

I think we're improving. While many institutions have programs aimed at grooming midlevel managers, higher education leaders have had to change their mind-set about professional development and its importance. We no longer see individuals coming to our colleges and universities ready to spend the next 20 or 30 years working for us. Within an increasingly competitive environment, we've begun to truly understand the need for our best talent to want to stay within our institutions. For that to happen, smart people need continuous opportunities to grow and learn.

We still also need to do a better job of creating cross-functional opportunities so that individuals gain a clear understanding of how their perspective fits into the broader mission. Institutions that are actively engaged in succession planning are the ones most likely to have a culture built around the creation of broad intellectual capital, which is an essential component for developing strong future leaders and managers.

Can you provide a specific example of a cross-functional mentoring opportunity?

One of the most efficient ways to engage employees outside their own area is to invite them to serve on committees and task forces or contribute to special projects. For example, business officers might consider bringing up-and-comers from student services or from academic departments, enrollment management, or other core functions of the institution to serve on a search committee or on a task force responsible for selecting new software for the organization. Ultimately, individuals who are moving into midlevel management roles across the institution will have a better appreciation and understanding of the complex nature of the business function and how the budgeting process works organizationwide. And that in turn can be a positive outcome for the business office.

Does this shift in emphasis on how mentoring takes place suggest a new role for the mentee as well as the mentor?

I believe so. In the past, mentees were often viewed as passive recipients and mentors as sage advisers. Within the context of lifelong learning, mentees must be self-directed rather than mentor-driven. They should be proactive in honing their skills, acquiring new knowledge, building deep professional networks, obtaining critical feedback, and gaining leadership experience.

How do you know when a mentoring opportunity is not working?

Problems tend to occur when the objectives are unclear, specific activities are not time limited, or additional assignments or projects keep the mentee from achieving regular work requirements. The more specific the mentee can be about the particular skill sets or knowledge he or she wants to acquire, the easier it will be for the mentor to offer helpful suggestions about what the mentee should read, which educational programs or courses might be beneficial, what volunteer activities are appropriate, and who else within the organization has specific knowledge or experience about a given topic. 

For their part, mentors must ensure that there is a clear path for the individual in terms of the knowledge he or she wants to gain, so they can point individuals in the right direction.

How would you differentiate mentoring from coaching or networking?

Institutions that are actively engaged in succession planning are the ones most likely to have a culture built around the creation of broad intellectual capital, which is an essential component for developing strong future leaders and managers.

I view a mentor as someone who looks broadly at an individual's career on a longer-term basis versus someone who is coaching a person around specific tasks or functional areas inside the organization. Networking is one component of a relationship that might occur between a mentor and a mentee, although an individual is more likely to look for opportunities to establish broad networks of colleagues and associates who can provide wise counsel in specific areas or who can help open doors.

In this new era of more informal mentoring relationships, what role is there for social media and other online networking opportunities?

Today, there are any number of new opportunities to learn from experts around the world through blogs, webinars, chat rooms, and videoconferencing. These e-mentoring relationships allow many individuals to gain knowledge across the globe.

Could someone be a mentor without knowing it?

Absolutely. Anyone with a unique skill set can serve as an informal mentor. Sometimes individuals simply want to observe how others approach decision—making challenges as a way to hone their own management skills or leadership style. This has certainly been true for me.

What have you looked for in a mentor?

I've had a number of mentors over the years, although I wouldn't necessarily describe them in that formal sense. These are individuals whom I've considered role models, but instead of asking them to structure their time around me, I found ways to volunteer for additional work assignments or participate on committees chaired by these individuals. For example, if they were giving speeches, I went and listened. I watched how they handled conflict in management situations.

As a university president, do you currently have a mentor?

Again, not in the formal sense. Certainly other presidents are role models, and the chancellor of our system is an extra-ordinary person with enormous expertise. But I have many colleagues and individuals in the business and academic communities whom I consider part of my kitchen cabinet, if you will—those whom I can run ideas by and ask how they might approach certain situations.

The complexity of our institutions makes it highly unlikely that one perfect person is out there to serve as a mentor across so many different areas. Today, leaders and managers at all levels are seeking out colleagues who have unique areas of expertise to help round out their own perspectives. In this sense, mentoring has evolved from a single teacher-student relationship toward an active cultivation of many diverse relationships with respected colleagues you trust and with whom you can brainstorm and problem-solve.

Within the context of these informal relationships, what are the real benefits for the mentor?

Satisfaction comes from knowing that these relationships increase retention rates and improve morale. Mentoring helps produce stronger teams and ensures that the core values of the organization are the values of the next generation of leaders and managers.

As leaders, we can no longer afford to look only at a select few individuals to bring along through the ranks. We really must focus more broadly on knowledge transfer in an effort to not only further enhance individual expertise, but also to ensure that our institutions are competitive, financially healthy, and academically strong.

BRONTÉ JONES is treasurer at St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland.