NACE Journal, February 2018
This article is the companion to “The Career Studio: Flipping the Career Center.”
Career mentors are guided in the art of mentoring through the “studio method,” a framework built on four core principles of mentoring: appreciation, co-exploration, small loops, and walkaways.
1. Appreciate the client
Appreciating the client means acknowledging that every student comes to us with a unique point of view, forged from a constellation of factors that might include their background, identity, values, beliefs, and experience. An effective mentor embraces the client’s perspective without judgment, and seeks to move forward together. In practice, appreciation for the client begins with a warm, prompt welcome the moment a student walks in the door. The career mentor seeks to understand a client’s needs, both stated and unstated. Working together, mentor and client set goals for the session and check in often to see that the client is getting what he or she needs.
We draw upon the expertise and time of colleagues who work closely with diverse student populations.
During training, we draw upon the expertise and time of colleagues who work closely with diverse student populations. In one workshop, career mentors participate in roundtable discussions with student services professionals to learn about student veterans, international students, students of nontraditional age, students who are first in their family to attend college, and students with disabilities. Another training workshop asks mentors to explore not only the challenges but also the distinct advantages and opportunities held by students who identify in various ways.
Questions about career paths tend to be complex and are often deeply personal. A wise mentor offers commiseration, resources, ideas, and help solving problems along the way—to provide the “right answer” is beside the point.
To help career mentors learn this concept, we introduce a coaching technique called “co-exploration.” As a mentor, your first goal is to understand the full shape of the client’s problem—so, you ask a lot of questions. Your next goal is to test possible answers in collaboration. You roll up your sleeves and get to work alongside your client. Your client wants to find a summer internship in Las Vegas? No problem: You’ll browse the job board together, then research alumni contacts using LinkedIn. Your client is writing her first-ever resume? You’ll draft it out together, after you pave the way with questions to find out what she already knows, how much experience she does or doesn’t have, and how she plans to use the finished resume.
Once they internalize the lessons of co-exploration, career mentors realize that they do not need to be (nor pretend to be) experts in all facets of career planning. If they know what questions to ask, which resources to turn to, and how to draw upon best practices from our field, then they have all the tools they need to serve a client well.
3. Small loops
We began training career mentors in a concept called “small loops” to encourage less dumping, more listening.
While it is true that career mentors need not be career experts, it is also true that they develop solid expertise in the career advising basics: resumes, cover letters, interviews, and the like. We noticed early on that the mentors tend to lapse into lecture mode when they feel especially confident about their own advice. This creates lopsided feedback loops—a knowledge dump from mentor to client, with little chance for the client to assert his voice.
We began training career mentors in a concept called “small loops” to encourage less dumping, more listening. Small loops require that you share smaller chunks of information at a time, inviting your client to absorb, ask questions, and even say it back to you before moving forward. Small loops are simply efficient feedback loops; they provide plenty of checks for understanding, both of you talking and listening in turn, and establish a true back-and-forth rapport between mentor and client.
To demonstrate small loops in training, we pass balls of yarn to pairs of new career mentors. As they act out some mentoring scenario, the mentor passes the thread of yarn to the “client,” and the “client” passes it back each time he or she gets a chance to say or ask something. At the end, the pair counts how many loops of yarn they made. More loops are smaller loops, which means the “client” had plenty of opportunities to share feedback as well as receive advice. It is now common to find a basket of yarn on the table when we do weekly trainings—extra practice in creating small loops never hurt anyone!
4. Own your walkaways
The fourth principle in the studio method addresses the end of a drop-in visit. Without the structure of a set start and end time, clients are likely to drift out of the Studio whenever they feel their work is done. When a client walks out unnoticed, a career mentor misses the chance to gauge the client’s satisfaction, and to help the client plan for next steps. To avoid this dynamic, we teach career mentors that they have to own their client’s “walkaways” throughout the entire session—meaning the career mentor is responsible for the full package of how the client feels, what he or she has learned, and whether the client knows what to do next. When setting session goals at the outset, the career mentor ought to have the end of the session in mind: What should the client walk away with? Owning your walkaways as a mentor means knowing how your client feels, whether she accomplished what she hoped to, and whether she feels comfortable and confident in her next steps.
We own our walkaways in the Studio by allowing every student the opportunity to share anonymous feedback before he or she leaves. Close to 100 percent of clients complete the survey. Professional staff keep an eye on survey results as they come in, and we use the results to figure out what to address in upcoming training meetings, or to make real-time adjustments on the Studio floor to better meet clients’ needs.