Why is Mentoring Good for Recruitment, Retention and Fostering Innovation?


Maria Herva Moyano, Charles River Laboratories (Chair)

Elisabeth Goodman, RiverRhee Consulting

Jeroen Stam, Norwich Bioscience Institutes (NBI)

David Cronk, Domainex

Alex Spicer, Faron

This was the first session of the Building Life Science Adventures conference and it certainly did not disappoint! Maria Herva Moyano (Mariu), Chairing the discussion, introduced herself and the other panellists Jeroen Stam, David Cronk, Alex Spicer and Elisabeth Goodman followed suit, including what they felt they would contribute to the panel. They covered all corners ranging from being a coach, a team leader, being mentored and/or being a mentee.

Unravelling the definitions of mentoring, coaching and sponsorship  

Mariu kickstarted the discussion by asking the panel what do the terms ‘Mentoring’, ‘Coaching’ and ‘Sponsorship’ mean to them. Elisabeth explained how a coach is more likely to draw knowledge out that someone already has within themselves and that a coach might not necessarily have the same technical expertise in what the individual is wanting to develop their skills and knowledge around. However, it is clear the lines are blurred and fuzzy between the definitions. Jeroen went on to say that a mentor will be more guiding and have expertise within the same field and agreed that a coach does not need to know anything about your work. A coach will support you with a specific challenge you might be facing and there will be a set period and number of sessions to achieve it. ‘Social mentoring’ was discussed as being more fluid and usually more long term in comparison to coaching. Finally, the term sponsorship is the next step on from mentoring; it is not just giving advice it is actively getting involved in someone’s career for example, by taking someone to a board meeting to promote them to get them further on in their career. Mariu added that a good manager should sponsor you to find opportunities that will put you in the spotlight to ensure progression.

When Alex was seeking a mentor, he found that his relationship developed organically with someone from his previous role. Initially he felt as though they each saw the world in a similar light and so he put in the effort to develop this. He knew that his mentor was someone who would ‘dig out’ his potential and in his words “turn an unpolished rock into something I wanted to be”. The serendipity helped in creating a strong rapport and open mentor-to-mentee relationship. Mariu asked the panel what they thought about this and how other mentor-to-mentee connections could form. David shared that it can be dependent on the organisation, it is good to find someone you know you can trust as opposed to the decision being made based on hierarchy; your mentor doesn’t necessarily need to be in a more senior position in order to give the best advice because whilst mentoring is associated with a particular figure, you may need to develop a specific skill that only someone lower within the organisational structure will know how to support you with. You might also not have that personal relationship with who you are best matched with. The most important thing is that you can discuss your problems without being met with judgement or feeling ‘dumb’. David then had to mute because his dogs started to mentor the neighbour’s cats!

Internal vs. External

One of the polls on the Building Life Science Adventures App asked delegates ‘What do you feel is the most effective method of mentoring?’ the most popular answer being ‘Internal e.g., line manager or more senior team member’. Elisabeth highlighted that there is the benefit of trust from having a mentor that knows you well and can help you to progress your strengths and support your challenges. However, there is also an advantage to having an external view because they will have fresh eyes and no judgement. Mariu shared her experience from her previous employment about when she was assigned a much more senior person who she had met only a couple of times in formal settings so there was no personal relationship or knowledge of the person beforehand. They were even in two different countries, managing the relationship online. At first it felt a little forced but then as the sessions progressed Mariu felt as though it was easier to open up because her mentor wasn’t in the same line of work as her so she was able to confide in him without worrying that it may leave their virtual four walls, “there was no bias or judgement”. He helped provide honest feedback and she valued the impartial views that he shared when Mariu had to make important decisions.











Jeroen added that deciding what you want to get out of your mentor is the first step when deciding to do it internally or externally. Sometimes, you can be more relaxed about being honest and fear less about it coming back to your line manager by having an external mentor because this will stimulate openness. Sometimes there are just those people who will understand the industry better themselves and be in a better position to mentor you. If you do not think about it beforehand and prepare what you want to get out of a mentor, this lack of investment could make it difficult for the mentor to feel as though you are taking the situation seriously and they will be less likely to invest their time in you. It is important to have a clear objective and a formalised structure with agreed number of times of how regularly you meet can be very useful. Make sure that you have questions ready, and you can explain why you have approached this person and what interests you. There are some barriers to be aware of when seeking a mentor due to confidentiality, particularly within the industry however, less likely in science. 

How can undergraduates wishing to go into industry find a mentor?

Have the courage to look internally first and approach your lecturers who have possibly already worked in industry to seek their advice. This was the first piece of advice given by Alex in response to the question above from the chat box. He added, once you have their advice if they cannot put you in touch with someone directly it is more than likely that they should be able to point you in the right direction of some who can or where to begin looking. A key takeaway from Alex’s point is that it is important to be bold. David then added that industry bodies within the UK, such as ELRIG, run early career professionals’ events which give you access to connect with established employers/employees within the industry. Taking advantage of building networks from industry bodies and attending events are both extremely valuable methods of gaining knowledge. Often it is “who you know is more important than what you know”. The panel discussed how LinkedIn and Twitter are both great tools for exploring what people are up to and following companies. You can message them and ask them about whether they would be willing to help by answering a few questions about their career, usually people are able to spare time for a 15 – 20minute ‘phone call or at least via email. One Nucleus also offers a student membership, which includes free attendance to BioWednesday’s, member events, discounts for training courses, and a free digital delegate pass to Genesis and ON Helix. These are just some of the selected benefits to help students to grow their network, learn from industry experts and possibly even meet a suitable mentor.

Many universities are now starting to run mentoring programmes. Jeroen added that he has experienced much more cross working nowadays with universities and industry and recommends that you go and talk to your lecturers for more information about this. Formalised or structured mentoring programmes remove the spontaneity however it does help to “level the playing field” for people who lack confidence in putting themselves out there when networking. The ‘science world’ is very open to most people if you approach them for advice.

These days, formalised mentoring programmes and the process by which they are arranged is incredibly advanced. Those organising it will seek information about the mentors just as much as the mentees to ensure they are matched with the person they think they will work best with. When Mariu was involved with this process she said it was surprising to see how well paired she was when she was matched with another female who is a mother looking to understand how to progress through her career. David added that it is a two-way process, you need to start with the mentor-mentee relationship then when you start to work together those boundaries get blurred because it is so open. Alex also echoed this and shared his story about how he was in a sauna with his mentor and intoxicated at the time, “you can’t get any more honest than being naked together!” he went on to say, whilst networking in saunas isn’t so common in the UK as it is Finland, Alex’s story reiterates the importance of feeling comfortable and relaxed around your mentor in order to get the most out of the situation. Equally, the mentee will also be developing the mentor because it is a fantastic leadership experience and position to be in.

It Works Both Ways

As you progress through an organisational structure and become more senior it is easy to lose touch with people on the ground so mentoring, as Jeroen states, can reinforce this relationship between staff because they do dictate things so knowing what is going on with your younger or junior researchers is valuable. He also mentioned ‘Reverse Mentoring Programmes’ with an example where the NHS recognise this benefit of connecting employees from different levels, genders or socioeconomic backgrounds to those in senior position so that they recognise the type of power and responsibility they have to change things.

Elisabeth, who is a coach rather than a mentor, wondered whether when a mentee is looking for a mentor, they might want to look at the soft skills the mentor has. The examples given being humility and openness as well as the technical skills that will develop their career and asked the panel what other qualities people should look for. Alex responded first that he felt he really lacked soft skills when he started his career and having a lack of compassion was one of his objectives to work on. An interesting comment that he made was that a mentor without soft skills and just the technical skills is just a teacher. Elisabeth followed up with a lovely analogy from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where the characters were all searching for their heart, courage, intelligence etc and then at the end they realised that what they were all looking for was already within themselves they just needed to find it.

One of Alex’s friends who works for the UK Marines said the most important skill they could have was not strength or speed it was to be the most trustworthy within a team which is not something you can learn. It is interesting that whilst being trustworthy and efficacy are essential skills in an employee however, you do not usually see these words on a CV. You can get the job done to a degree with the technical skills however, soft skills are just as important and as a mentee or employer, should they be encouraging people to spotlight these skills on their CV, particularly as these are the essential skills they are looking for?

Not every mentorship programme will work out straight away, David shared that one of the mentors he had for a short period of time focused on encouraging David to follow in his footsteps as opposed to working with him as an individual and being open and listening. His advice is that you should pick a mentor that is prepared to sit there and listen not just tell you what to do. Having a mentor with a similar mindset to you can be useful however. Jeroen said that seeking out people who will challenge him more and if there is a bit of friction this helped him progress. He mentioned how having someone who thinks a little differently is good because naturally you will look for someone you are comfortable with and can relate to.

Is there a stage in your career where mentoring becomes less relevant?

No… having someone who is there to push and challenge you is beneficial no matter at what stage of your career. Mariu added that it helps you to be open and honest and push you out of your comfort zone. Being encouraged to dig deep within yourself and think about what you want to pursue with your career is very good.

What is the best way to finish a mentor relationship?

Mariu handed it over to Alex who had previously shared how he had to communicate with his current mentor that it was time for him to move on, and guess what… they were sat in the sauna! Supposedly, “in Finland the best conversations happen in the sauna”, you heard it here first! When Alex had finally felt like he had reached a stage in his career where his mentor had helped him enough, he openly told him that he needed to step out from underneath him and his mentor was fine with this because he felt as though his work was done and supported Alex’s decision. He is now reflecting on what he needs to learn next because there is always room for growth and then his next step is finding someone new. Do you want to be the next mentor to join Alex in the sauna, he is recruiting! Relationships have a lifetime; there are specific things you need to learn and as a mentor it is equally their role to be able to say, “I can’t help you anymore” and possibly connect you to someone who can.

There are parallels, as Elisabeth explains, between coaching and mentoring such as agreeing goals and then you agree how you know they have been achieved. Coaching is likely to be more time-bound with sessions more regular and reviews of progression. Jeroen discusses how having structure will stifle the mentoring relationship e.g., filling in a questionnaire forces people to think about what they want to achieve and then meet that goal. You must work out what works for you personally. Jeroen added that he noticed how Elisabeth is talented as a coach and that through the panel discussion her positive character traits shine through, particularly how she asks questions and feeds thoughts back into the panel.

A question came into the chat box about ethnic and minority barriers to seeking a mentor and whether they exist. “Everyone has something to offer” says David, and that you should not stereotype the person that you would like to approach as a mentor because they can be anyone. As a mentee you should not let this stand in your way. Alex shared that he has ADHD and dyslexia which is personal to him and then when choosing his mentoring and trying to explain how he has “the reading age of a six-year-old” he felt as though he just needed to own it and be honest. Because his barrier is not visible, he feels as though it could be easy to avoid but everyone within the industry has been very happy to help through his career. David highlights how there are possible perception barriers and that because he did not do a PhD after doing a part time degree at university this can be looked down upon but “you need to own the skills you have got” and he has not let this get to him. Because Mariu is from Spain she has taken advantage from having a mentor to help her to understand the different culture, ways of thinking, communicating, organisational structure, hierarchy from what she is used to and this was an extremely useful experience, especially to understand what people mean but also for Mariu to be able to communicate better. Jeroen highlighted the reverse mentoring scheme again within this context and said that is helping to tackle some of the barrier issues but most importantly he reiterated what David said about not letting it get to you and stop you when choosing a mentor.

When looking for a mentor you will not necessarily be able to find one person who will cover everything you need, you might need more than one mentor. You should pick and choose and make the best of your situation from getting different perspectives, especially while you are young. Jeroen raised that it is important to stop and reflect on who you are getting your advice from and how diverse is that group? Go and explore outside of your departments and organisation. David shared how, now that he has transitioned from Charles River Laboratories which is a large company to a much smaller company, he is looking for someone to mentor him who may have been through a similar transition and to do this he will need to look outside the organisation.

Elisabeth asked the panel about money because when you receive sessions from a coach you usually have to pay for these, but you don’t pay a mentor. The panel agreed that this has been the case for them individually. However, when there is no lockdown and people start to move away from being mentored virtually, people will need to consider expense costs and depending on how far you go to meet your mentee there might be a fee involved.

The session came to a close with the final question of, ‘should you always seek input and approval from your manager or boss when finding a suitable mentor?’. The general feedback was that if you are taking time out of the week during work hours it is important to communicate this with your line manager but at the same time if your boss is really against this then this could be a red flag. Elisabeth added that if you work for an organisation that encourages mentorships then this is likely to be a fantastic employer.

Blog by Jasmin Bannister, Events and Communications Administrator at One Nucleus

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