Allison McWilliams: Building networks of impact

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWillliams is assistant vice president, mentoring and alumni personal & career development. She writes occasional articles for Inside WFU. This is the first for the spring semester.  In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff from her professional experiences with students.

Mentoring typically is conceived of as a one-to-one relationship. Historically, mentoring relationships developed from the master-apprentice model to the manager-protégé model; in both, potential successors are chosen or “anointed” and provided with all of the tools, knowledge, and skills that they need to eventually replace the master or manager mentor. In this traditional view, the mentor is the expert, the source of all wisdom and experience, and the mentee or protégé is a blank slate, an empty vessel just waiting to be filled up with all of that knowledge and experience.

We no longer think of mentoring in these terms. First, this outdated, paternalistic view of mentoring assumes that mentees have no prior experience, histories, or knowledge. Second, this version of mentoring puts considerable pressure on the mentor to be the “be-all, end-all” person for his or her mentee. And third, due to the inherent power dynamics in any mentoring relationship, it provides no opportunity for mentees to seek out additional counsel and wisdom that can mitigate those dynamics.

Today we must encourage and help students to build mentoring networks that include multiple people who can support and encourage them as they pursue their individual paths. An effective network of mentors, wise counselors, sponsors, advisors, coaches, and accountability partners helps to broaden students’ perspectives, diversify the voices that are speaking into their lives, increase their access to opportunities, and encourage deeper reflection and learning. And it lessens the burden on any one person to serve as that all-consuming mentor.

Research on strong and weak ties dates back to the early 1970s. Strong ties, the people who know you the best, are key elements of an effective support system. These people are most like you, share your values and worldview, and often have blinders on when it comes to providing objective, impactful feedback. Weak ties go broad but not deep. They know you well enough to support your growth, but they aren’t necessarily your close friends and family.

A great network contains both strong and weak ties. Help your students build their networks by asking them to do a simple network-mapping activity. Who is in their network, currently, and where are there gaps? How can they use the people in their network to create new, broader connections? Encourage them to begin to grow their networks, now, to impact short and long-term learning and growth.