March 16, 2018

Mentorship 101 | On the Job

ComitoHeadshotIt’s easy to find advice on how to mentor a Millennial, but what if you are a Millennial, and you are the mentor? It’s bound to start happening. As of 2015, Millennials make up the largest proportion of the workforce. The oldest members of that generation are turning 34 and moving into management positions. Those of us who have moved into management have had help, and we should send the ladder back down.

Keep it casual

Yet what does that even mean? Walking up to someone and asking them to be your mentor can feel like asking someone to be your boyfriend, in kindergarten. While there are a lot of formal mentoring programs being offered by employers and professional associations, they can feel forced and awkward.

Reaching out informally can be as simple as a chat conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Vanessa Christman from the County of Los Angeles Public Library says that mentoring tends to happen for her naturally. “Usually someone will see something I’ve written and take the initiative to contact me and ask for advice or for tips and that will translate into a longer correspondence be it through Facebook messenger, email, text…etc.” She goes on to say that it “rarely translates into something where I think of myself as someone’s formal ‘mentor’ as it’s more about establishing a connection with a colleague or student who thinks highly enough of me to ask for advice.”

One of the nice things about informal mentoring is that you don’t have to wait until someone reaches out to ask you a question. If you notice someone struggling online, you can be the one who makes the move to ask if they need anything.

Imposter syndrome

One of the problems with being a mentor early in your career is that you can feel as if you shouldn’t be one at all. Just because you are younger or newer in the profession doesn’t mean that you don’t have experiences or skills to share. Colleagues wouldn’t present you with questions or requests for support if they didn’t see you as someone who could help them or who would have a useful perspective. People have a variety of skills, and maybe your particular skill is useful to someone else, even if that person is older than you are.

Start here

Once you realize that your experience and talents have value and decide you want to help new professionals get started, what is involved? Mentoring is essentially seeing potential in another person and helping them get where they need to go. That could be by talking them through rough spots, or helping them get their résumé in front of the right person. You could vouch for someone for a committee position, assist with a project they are passionate about to get off the ground, or connect them to someone else who can.

You could also just listen: being a librarian can be stressful, especially when it’s your first job. As a more experienced librarian, you know how to deal with problematic patron interactions, and that it’s a good idea to get a flu shot if you work in a public library. Share that stuff, because it might seem obvious, but it isn’t. Here are some ways to get started:

1 BE APPROACHABLE: As at the reference desk, no one is going to ask you anything if you are not open and approachable. Go to a party at a conference, and talk to people you don’t know. Ask questions about projects people are doing; show an interest.

2 REACH OUT: If you notice that a colleague or coworker is having difficulty with something, offer your aid. The worst that can happen is they refuse it.

3 LISTEN: Listen to what younger colleagues are saying. It’s been a terrible economy for nearly a decade. Those of us who were lucky enough to get jobs in libraries before or during the recession must remember that it hasn’t gotten much easier. If a new librarian needs to spend some time complaining about the rent, or the price of gas, let them. Or they may be having their first experience being harassed at the reference desk. Find out first what is ­going on.

4 OFFER SUPPORT: Sometimes listening is all that is needed, but support can also be connecting someone to another colleague, or sending an article/picture of a kitten. You can look at CVs, and offer to serve as a reference. Provide the support you feel comfortable with and on which you can follow through.

Don’t forget, you get something out of this, too. Maybe you have been a librarian for five to ten years and everything is starting to feel a bit routine. If you spend time helping newer librarians in their careers and getting their ideas and projects launched, you get to see their enthusiasm. Maybe you can absorb some of it and go back to your own work feeling reinvigorated. After all, as Christman says, “I’ve discovered that one of my big joys in this job is seeing someone take initiative and become successful. If I’m a small part of making that happen, it feels even better.”

Lauren Comito is Job and Business Academy Manager for Queens Library, Jamaica, NY; Councilor at Large for the American Library Association; President-elect of the Leadership and Management section of the New York Library Association; Board Chair of Urban Librarians Unite; and a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Dale McNeill says:

    I agree, Lauren. I also think that it’s important to remember that we’re mentoring people all the time. I think it’s good to let people know how we’re making decisions and so on, but even our conversations and interactions with staff are constant opportunities for mentoring. My first “mentor” and I probably had no more than two conversations, but I remain, 30 years later, inspired by the way Jean Harrington managed the public library in Enid, Oklahoma, where I was a shelver, circulation attendant, and children’s assistant.