Jump Starters By Sandra Schmid
Professional mentoring programmes are intended to make embarking on a career a little easier. The days when they were only available for women are long gone.
© Godfried van Loo - Fotolia.comProfessional mentoring programmes help get started in a career. Ulysses appointed his best friend to be the protector of his son. He was to support young Telemachos while Ulysses was away. The name of this friend: Mentor. Today, the Mentor from Homer's epos has become synonymous with and the ideal of an older and benign counsellor. Sponsors could and can be found in all areas of education and employment: master craftsmen, doctorate supervisors - or the so-called old boys, who as alumni not only support their former fraternities financially, but also use their connections to help younger fraternity members along.
But career support systems for young scientists that functioned regardless of personal sympathies, social status or membership in a fraternity were barely to be found at German universities or companies. And old boys' networks that made it easier to get ahead in industry, science or politics often only existed for men. Professional mentoring programmes are intended to break this mould. »We want an end to cronyism, and would instead like to see greater recognition for soft skills«, says Christine Kurmeyer, chairwoman of »Forum Mentoring«. This is one reason why the first university projects in Germany in the early 90s were aimed solely at women, who were to be supported in finally breaking into male-dominated fields such as the natural sciences, and in gaining leadership roles. Many businesses also recognised the advantages of mentoring: Siemens organised an internal programme called Yolante to make it easier for promising young female employees to reach management level. Others specifically co-operated with university initiatives such as the »MentorinnenNetzwerk«, a network of female mentors.
It is estimated that there are meanwhile between 100 and 200 such programmes at German universities - and not just at large universities such as those in Berlin or Munich. Their focus varies: some remain intended exclusively for women, others are available to both sexes. Some programmes are aimed at all students of a university, some only at those in certain faculties. A few co-operate with other universities or even businesses. But the mentoring landscape is also confusing for another reason: new projects are initiated daily, while others are closed down. Overall the trend is however »constantly growing«, says Christine Kurmeyer. Not least because many federal states and the German Research Foundation provide special funding for mentoring.
One woman who has discovered what mentoring can mean is Ilka Olbrich. At the »MentorinnenNetzwerk«, a network of female mentors that specifically supports female students embarking on careers in natural science and technical subjects, the 26-year-old made the acquaintance of Gudrun Sauer, who was working as a physicist at Fresenius. »An incredible stroke of luck«, recounts Ilka. 39-year-old Gudrun Sauer not only became her mentor, she also helped make it possible that the student could write her Diplom thesis at Sauer's workplace. The principle of mentoring is simple. Younger people benefit from the experience and contacts of their elders. In practice this means that a manager supports a student or young person embarking on a career for usually one year, mainly in the decisive transition phase between degree and starting work. On professional programmes this is often accompanied by additional events: workshops on subjects such as »Soft Skills« or »Coaching« are aimed specifically at mentees and mentors; after all, many a manager with a full-time job needs a motivation to take on additional responsibility.
At heart, however, mentoring is about the personal contact between mentor and mentee: regular, confidential exchanges provide the opportunity to pass on practical tips on work placements or jobs, but also to touch on the big questions, such as which career path to take. Because everything discussed remains private, conversations can be open and frank. This means that mentors are in an ideal position to give something that is often in short supply at university or in the workplace: individual feedback. How often mentor and mentee meet is up to the individual duo. Ilka Olbrich and her mentor Gudrun Sauer worked next door to each other at Fresenius, »So of course we saw each other every day«, says Olbrich. This meant that her mentor was available to her at any time.
But not only graduates making the transition to a career benefit from this kind of support; so do students like Stefan Jacob. The 23-year-old is in the sixth semester of a law degree, and is considering becoming a tax advisor after his state examination. That's why he applied for the mentoring programme offered by the University of Mannheim while he was still completing his basic degree, and searched specifically for a mentor from this industry. One who could talk about professional practice and give tips regarding the areas he should focus his studies on. The university put him in touch with Katrin Müller. The 34-year-old is a chartered accountant and works for Ernst & Young in Stuttgart. Jacob still remembers their first meeting exactly: they went to a Mexican restaurant, and Müller soon suggested they drop the formal "Sie". »That surprised me«, says Jacob, »but I liked it better that way, it was more personal.« Due to the distance between Stuttgart and Mannheim the two could meet only rarely. That didn't bother Jacob: »Instead we wrote more e-mails, or spoke on the phone.« Usually once a month, but more often if Jacob needed advice. The mentoring contract, officially concluded for a year, has meanwhile ended, but the contact hasn't: if he needs his mentor, he has her number.
And the mentors too benefit from contact with younger people. Katrin Müller's commitment as a mentor is based on more than just the expectations of her employer: consulting firm Ernst & Young intentionally forms contacts to universities in order to recruit new employees. But Müller also makes the most of the exchange: she helps Jacob find his way, and this also allows her to reflect on her own career. But one thing is important: it is always the mentee who has to set him- or herself goals. The mentor can only offer support. Gudrun Sauer has experienced that some mentees didn't even know what they wanted: »There was this unspoken plea: 'Tell me what to do'«, recalls Sauer.
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But supplying ready-made solutions or even helping people deal with psychological problems is not her job, she says. The most important requirement for a successful relationship between mentor and mentee is that the chemistry must be right. Then a very personal bond can develop. »It fills a gap that has become greater in modern workplaces«, says Christine Kurmeyer of »Forum Mentoring«. E-mails, SMS, telephone conferences - the technisation of communication often prevents direct personal contact, she continues. But »What was dismissively rationalised away as 'lubricant' among the factual information does actually appear to be a significant part of human interaction.«
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