Whether it’s an intern who’s with you for a summer or a student worker in an academic office, mentoring can be a real challenge for many people who come into contact with students.
The penchant — especially for younger professionals — to treat students as “buddies” or as junior employees is an easy one and as such, it can blur the lines of professional decorum very quickly. Once the lines are crossed, it can be a very difficult thing to turn back the clock on.
I don’t really have any hard and fast rules for mentoring students, in part because my mentoring posture is just an extension of my personality. In other words, treat people like the adults they are. In every way you can.
I don’t believe in coddling students or making them feel like they are babies, because they’re not. I’m direct, but also funny most of the time…and try to make them understand that I’m genuinely interested in their growth and development. It’s a function of being a student and having experienced a lot of what they are, but being older when it happened.
But here are a few things I’ve come to use as a model for how I deal with students in the workplace:
1. Be honest. It just seems like a common sense thing, but telling a student they’ll be doing one thing, only to have them doing something different seems disingenuous to me. Explaining up front the range and scope of the work they’ll be doing, ensures there are no surprises later.
2. They’re adults. Treat them that way. Just because they’re students, doesn’t mean I treat them like bottom feeders. Even if the tasks they perform can sometimes feel that way, it’s important for me to communicate that their assistance is appreciated, without making it seems as if they’re indispensable. After all, none of us are.
3. Communicate. It’s such a key, because it can be uncomfortable working in a professional office (especially if you’re the only student) and feel as if you’re being shut out of things or don’t know what’s going on. Now I realize they can’t know everything, nor should they, but sharing information and letting them know what you can, goes a long towards building trust and also lends itself to…
4. Teaching Moments. Teachable moments are plentiful in the academic workplace. But all too often, we can get wrapped up in our own activities or want to let stuff go and be the “cool boss” and just brush things off as “not a big deal.” We do young workers a disservice by failing to show them how their actions as students can translate into poor work habits once they graduate. With the economy becoming more competitive each day, whatever advantages we can extend to students before they leave the door can be ones that stay with them for life. So I make it a point to share moments that can be tied to something bigger, because they eventually start to see how things are interrelated, without always knowing the details.
5. Boundaries. I’ve been blessed with great bosses almost my entire career. But one thing I came to figure out pretty early on, was that I had to learn how to separate the relationship. When it’s all boiled down, both of you have a job to do and your responsibility is to make their life a bit easier. If they’re worth their salt, they’ll do the same for you. I feel this is the same way for students. You can be cool, respectful and fun, without letting them think you’re buddies. Because this is the easiest trap for students to fall into and so, it’s not about asserting control as much as it’s about getting the job done.
Just because I like to laugh while getting it done, doesn’t obscure the fact that it ultimately needs to get done, the right way or else we’ll have problems. I articulate all of this a lot more coherently in ebook manifesto I wrote a few months ago on ChangeThis called Workplace 2.0: Motivating and Managing Millennials.
What are your ideas on student mentoring?