Unexpected surprises

Eleanor Payne, 14.12.2017
Becoming a mentor
I embarked on my journey as a mentor in the Museums Association’s Mentoring For All scheme with some trepidation.

When I was undertaking my AMA my mentor was like a shining light. She could not have been more supportive, but in such a gentle and almost stealth-like way that I had no idea at the time that what she was doing was actually helping me to develop myself.

It was so clever of her. Despite her extensive experience and me being right at the beginning of my career she made me her peer. I just used to think how lovely our meetings were every six months or so, it was so easy. We’d go to museums together and talk about them.

We would sift over the changes in legislation that affected our jobs over coffee, and discuss what it might mean for the sector. We would be honest and open and know it would go no further. I wanted to give something back and, thinking back to my mentor and what I had learned from her, I thought, that’s it, that’s why and that’s how I wanted to do it.

So, off I went to Birmingham for the initial training course back in May. I was excited but also had no idea what to expect. I arrived and it was relaxed, everyone was lovely and we shared pleasantries over tea and biscuits. Very civilised. But when I sat hearing about different models of development and the difference between coaching and mentoring, I admit I was worried. How would I manage to cram all that theory in to a maximum of six meetings with my poor mentee?

They would surely run a mile when they saw the huge ring binder of notes I would obviously need for each meeting, not to mention: a Dictaphone (I couldn’t miss a thing), a ream of notepaper, a friendly and supportive demeanour, the list went on.

I am exaggerating but it was daunting. When the time came to meet my mentee I was actually starting to feel concern - what would I say?

But when we met, very informally over lunch, it was fine. I was plunging myself into panic for nothing, we were just two human beings after all. So we chatted briefly and agreed we would meet up in London for our initial meeting. We had four meetings over our relationship together.

We met on neutral ground, in a museum, at a conference and then at their workplace and having that mixture of locations helped, I think. It created a freer structure and meant we weren’t restricted to formality or getting stuck in a repetitive cycle. Over that time I admit there have been unexpected surprises, and I can honestly say that the relationship I so wanted to be reciprocal really was.

Anyone that knows me will tell you impatience is a character trait of mine, but through mentoring I have discovered that I can be more patient than I ever thought I could be. I really wanted to listen. And I really wanted to help my mentee work the things out they wanted to work on. I was pleasantly surprised by that part of me being there.

Wanting to discuss and share and even reciprocate frustrations while giving some of my own time to them was just great, and really enjoyable. Of course, nothing in life is completely selfless but this experience has shown me that I didn’t mind helping.

That sounds quite strange, I know, but I guess the fact I didn’t query it throughout meant we had approached this the right way. We agreed on a way forward straight away through a mentoring agreement. The most useful statement within it was, I think, “take a common sense approach”. This suggestion was from my mentee. We had mutual respect for one another immediately.

My confidence took a knock in recent years. A few challenging events in my career took their toll. This sector is amazing, fascinating and rewarding, but it can also be challenging; resilience isn’t easy to maintain. I needed to take back a bit more of the control I had lost and that is what mentoring did. Unexpectedly, I also found my confidence growing, and remembered I do have something to give, and that people always have a value whatever their starting point.

And so here I am, writing at the end of the six month relationship which has now formally finished, and I feel quite sad. We will keep in touch - I know that – and I have made a great friend who I really respect.

Even though I will really miss it, I am excited about future opportunities that mentoring will bring me career-wise and I want to maintain this element of my practice from now on. Mentoring helped me remember where I started and how giving someone a chance, a bit of time, and being in their corner, is worth its weight in gold.

Eleanor Payne is the learning and interpretation officer at St Albans Museum