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Designing and Sustaining a Mentor Network
July 15, 2015

When many people think about finding a mentor, they picture themselves at a networking mixer, searching for the perfect person to further their career, or sending an invitation to connect with someone on LinkedIn.  In reality, mixers and LinkedIn alone are a “hit and miss strategy without sustainability,” says Karun K. Singh, PhD, LCSW-R, CSWM, Professor of Teaching, Rutgers University School of Social Work. He taught a professional development workshop on building a lasting mentor network at this year’s Network for Social Work Management Conference’s Emerging Leaders Institute. The workshop was well-received, and he has been invited to train a new cohort of selected national and international participants at next year’s Institute.     

“LinkedIn, for example, is a platform that many people set up but do not continue to manage.  It can be very useful, but you have to continually target, monitor, evaluate, and adapt your participation, as well as initiate and respond to online invitations that eventually translate into real life networking meetings,” observes Dr. Singh.

At the presentation, called “Designing, Shaping, and Sustaining a Network of Mentors,” he spoke of the critical importance of personally creating a mentoring network. In particular, he encouraged attendees to identify the roles mentors play in their careers, and to develop plans to effectively recruit and retain mentors.

One important point he stressed was the collaborative nature of a sound and mutually beneficial association between mentors and mentees, and that shared help was one of the keys to the sustainability of a good mentoring relationship. “It has to be a two-way street. You need to find ways to assist and to give something back to your mentors. You can’t just keep asking and taking, or else the relationship will falter. Consistently monitor the relationship for these give-and-take qualities,” asserts Dr. Singh.

He also encouraged social workers to take a systematic and strategic approach to network building by asking themselves to first define their career goals.  Next they should examine areas where they need support to achieve these goals, who can fulfill these needs, and how they can begin to establish these relationships.

Some approach tactics are the following: Plan to make an in-person contact at a meeting, presentation, or workshop; plan to email someone you expect to meet soon; plan to call someone by phone you have recently met; plan to contact someone by social media whom you have a slim chance of meeting in person, but nevertheless would like to include as an e-mentor in your network of mentors; and/or plan to sign up for a formal mentoring program which is available through your work or professional/academic membership association.

While most people might think of mentors as those with the most experience and competencies in higher positions, Dr. Singh notes that networks with the most sustainability and impact contain a mixture of junior, peer, and senior mentors.  Peer mentors are often the first to hear of job openings at the same level that you might be seeking. Junior mentors are often the savviest in the kinds of social media skills so useful in today’s business environment, and they can provide invaluable training and assistance to more senior colleagues who frequently are less adept at harnessing the power of new Internet communications technologies.

In his own career, Dr. Singh recalls how one faculty mentor from his PhD program at the Columbia University School of Social Work helped him to obtain three NIMH T-32 training grants that fully funded his doctoral education. Another mentor and agency executive director could not increase his salary, but agreed to pay for his enrollment in a not-for-profit executive leadership program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, which enabled his career advancement. 

Overall, he views mentoring as critical to a career in social work. “Without mentoring, you can’t get very far. This is especially important in terms of understanding and navigating the politics of the work environment.  Mentors can provide translational feedback that is very important for career success.” 

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