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With schools and centers spread out across a sprawling campus, Penn can be a bewildering place to work. In this kind of complex environment, says Career Coach Gale Gibbons, “it can be hard to figure out how to do things,” and what happens outside of one’s own department can remain pretty much a mystery. With support from the Division of Human Resources, Gibbons set out last year to help employees navigate Penn’s unwieldy terrain by setting up a mentoring program.

“ It doesn’t mean there wasn’t any mentoring happening, because there was,” says Gibbons. Creating a formal program, though, seemed a logical next piece to add to Penn’s many professional development opportunities for staff. Mentors@Penn, the program Gibbons created with Learning & Education Executive Director Beverly Edwards and graduate student Eve Poussot, runs for one year, May through May, with mentors and mentees agreeing to meet monthly.

For Sylvie Beauvais, an administrative assistant with Wharton’s Health Care System and a mentee in the pilot program that began last spring, getting a “bigger perspective” on the University was the motivating factor. Though she’d already been involved with Wharton’s mentoring program, she says she wanted to “get a feel for how things happen in different parts of the University.”

Beauvais, says Gibbons, was a good mentee candidate because she is “someone actively involved in her own development.” Mentees, she says, have to bring their own goals to the table and take responsibility for the next step of their professional lives. They also have to be prepared to listen to feedback and “hear it out.” It’s OK, she says, “if there are things you need to learn.”

Mentors need a different set of skills, according to Gibbons, and it’s not always what you’d think. “We tell our mentors a lot of the teaching they’ll do is telling their own stories.” People frequently have a hard time seeing themselves as mentors, Gibbons says, because they forget what it was they didn’t know earlier in their careers and how much acquired wisdom they have to pass on.

Beauvais appreciates her mentor, Sandy Rathman, executive assistant director of special projects and communications in the School of Engineering, because, she says, “She is the most pragmatic, down-to-earth person I ever met and she has tremendous energy and a great sense of hope.”

Most important, Beauvais says, Rathman has helped her focus. “I’ll spin out scenarios and consider all the possibilities and sometimes get lost in the details. She’ll cut to the quick and push me to prioritize. She’s great at giving me a perspective, and she always reminds me of the long-term view.”

For Rathman, the experience has been rewarding, and not just in terms of nurturing a younger, less experienced employee. “When I talk to her about setting goals, it helps to remind me of my own goals. We all get in a rut sometimes. It’s helped me to reevaluate where I’m going and it’s reenergized me, seeing her energy.”

As someone working at a more senior level of decision-making, Rathman has useful advice to offer Beauvais when she’s presenting something to her boss—“She helps me position arguments in the most effective way”— or trying to understand why a particular decision was made. “It’s like having a boss that’s not a boss,” says Beauvais, someone you can talk to candidly and “practice dialogue” with.

One of the biggest pluses for Beauvais is having someone to help her deal with emotional issues in a practical way. “There’s a lot of emotion at work that can’t really be discussed openly, and having someone to counsel you on how to behave professionally and practically when things get uncomfortable emotionally is a great help.”

Mentors@Penn kicks off again this spring. Information sessions for interested staff will be held on April 5 and 12. For more information, go to www.hr.upenn.edu/learning/mentors_penn.asp.

Originally published on March 17, 2005