In a formal setting in my mentor?s office, our first one-hour meeting destroyed all the comfortable certainties of my professional life, writes Barbara Woroncow.
Probing questions and acute observations on my previous experience and future aspirations led to a feeling of complete disorientation for the following few weeks. How was the world changing around me and my organisation? What did I really want in the medium to longer-term?
I now realise that being so unsettled initially is a common feature of mentoring relationships at a senior level, as I have seen colleagues go through similar experiences. My mentor was right. I had been Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Museums Council for 12 years when we first met and it was time to take stock.
For me, it was important that my mentor should not come from my own professional background, as I wanted an extra dimension to my quarter-century of museum experience. However, it was equally important for me that my mentor should be from the public sector so as to understand the constraints under which we operated. A chance encounter at a Sports Council dinner with the then newly-appointed Chief Executive of our Regional Development Agency seemed to provide an ideal opportunity. He had broad local authority experience, including at Chief Executive level, and a personality I immediately both liked and respected. I knew he was extremely busy and in my subsequent request for mentoring I defined from the outset that two meetings a year, usually over lunch, would be sufficient.
Since our first meeting my mentor has given me invaluable guidance in many areas of personal, professional and organisational development. I was thinking about some additional management training and he helped me to focus more clearly on the need to develop leadership rather than management skills which resulted in a very effective use of my time and our slender resources on a short course at Cranfield University. My mentor also gave me excellent advice on other areas of development that I had not considered for myself. For example, I had done a tremendous amount of public speaking throughout my career, including two years as President of the UK Museums Association, yet he recommended further presentation skills training to equip me better for my growing regional advocacy role. Again, he was right. The course honed my skills to the extent that I saw immediate benefits in being able to make the case considerably better.
On a broader front, my mentor provided me with support and advice on restructuring and organisational change, especially over the last 18 months as the Museums Council moved towards re-inventing itself as an expanded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. My mentor?s own experience of establishing a new organisation and board proved especially helpful to me on governance issues.
On a personal level, having removed the certainties of my professional life, my mentor then helped me to recognise that skills which I had previously perceived as being wholly museum-specific were, in fact, generic and transferable. This built my self-confidence tremendously and I have now decided to embark on a new phase of my life and will be leaving my organisation next spring after nearly 20 years. My current view of ?the world being my oyster? results directly from the immensely valuable and creative experience that being mentored has given me.
At chief executive level, professional development and training suffers as much from a lack of time, as it does from a lack of resources. An appropriately chosen mentor can provide a structured and supportive learning environment with remarkably little time commitment on both sides. The strength of the system, based on continually evolving familiarisation with each other?s circumstances, results in a quality of experience that cannot be matched by one-off training events, however good they may be. In addition, a chief executive?s position can sometimes feel a little isolated: a good mentor can provide the perfect antidote.
Barbara Woroncow OBE MA FMA is Acting Chief Executive of Yorkshire Museums Libraries & Archives Council t: 0113 263 8909 e: email@example.com