Mentoring in Practice: Ellen Harshman of Saint Louis University

Mentoring in Practice: A Conversation with Ellen Harshman, Ph.D., Dean – John Cook School of BusinessSaint Louis University

Q: How long have you been at The John Cook School of Business?

A: I came to Saint Louis University in 1972, and I moved to the Business School as assistant dean in 1980.  Before beginning my career in higher education in 1969, I was a 4th grade teacher.

Q:  Can you tell me about someone of whom you think as a mentor who made a difference in your career? Did anyone give you advice that really made an impact?

A:  There was a high school teacher who encouraged me to take advantage of a program that allowed high school juniors to start college at Miami of Ohio.  I took a night class in biology at an extension near my house while I was a senior.  That biology teacher and the man who was the head of their extension programs arranged for me to get scholarship money that I wouldn’t have known how to apply for and didn’t know existed.  So, early at that stage, people were helping me and encouraging me and I didn’t really quite know what that meant.

The next person I think who was really instrumental was my Master’s project advisor in my graduate work at Wright State. His name was Wesley Huckins, and he said to me something that stayed with me forever.  He said, “Never turn down the chance to do something different.” Once I came to Saint Louis University there were probably lots of people who were mentors.  Jerry Fallert Gerry Fowler who was then the Vice President for Student Development was key in that.  And then have been people inside and outside the organization that sort of pop up from time to time.

Q: Have you actively sought out any mentors?

A: I have never looked for a mentor. They seem to come along. But, I’m also one who is very willing to listen to people and take advice. I think I do at least recognize when there is somebody around me who is talking to me about things that I ought to be listening to.  And, I am very open to that. I think I do value the willingness that people have, the extension that people make to sort of offer help. I would say Joe Weixlemann, who is the current Provost, is a good mentor.  Sandy Johnson, who was the previous Provost, was, continues to be, a great mentor.

Q:  What about your role as a mentor in the organization?  Do you mentor anyone actively or informally even? 

A: I have always felt that in the organization that my role was to try to help people achieve what it was they wanted to achieve and sometimes that was a matter of helping them think about their own goals and then talking about how I can help them with that.

Q: What have you gotten out of the opportunity to make an impact on someone or be a mentor for someone?

A: I will run into people that have been around a while who will say to me, “Remember when I came to you and I talked to you about X, Y, or Z?  I did that.”  And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what if that was a bad thing.”  There is that sense of responsibility.  If somebody is willing to let you into their life, it is a tremendous responsibility. There are those people who will say publicly that there was a moment in time when I said something that made sense to them and they went off and did it, and look at them 30 years later. If people are going to invite you in, there is a responsibility to respond and a responsibility to respond seriously.

Q:  If someone came to you and said, “I realize that part of my role is to be a mentor and you have been doing it for a while”, what would you tell them they need to do or think about to be successful?

A:  Be careful about making commitments you can’t keep. You don’t want somebody counting on you to do something that you can’t. And, I think it is to know your limitations.  Sometimes the best mentoring I do is to find somebody else. Somebody needs help with this X, Y, or Z, and I can’t do that. But I can maybe find somebody who could. You are not expected to have all the answers. I try not to have any for the most part. I think people who have the hard questions have those answers inside them. It’s a matter of bringing them out.

Q:  What would you tell someone who is looking for advice on how to approach people and make themselves receptive and make mentoring successful for them? 

A:  Don’t ask a question unless you are really willing to consider the answer.  So don’t get into a situation unless it is going to have potential for you.  I see people inside an organization who try to figure out politically who would be the right person to get next to and then try to turn that position into a mentoring relationship, being almost predatory about it.  I am not sure that is always the best strategy. That is artificial and I wouldn’t want to do that.  I think you also have to have reasonable expectations about what a mentor can and should be willing to do for you.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add about mentoring or coaching that you can think of?

A: If you want to be on the receiving end, be pretty clear about what your goals are.  What do you want to accomplish out of this relationship? Mentoring is focused too much on an individual. Think of it more as a number of people in a network out there who can provide certain things, each one of them having a little different ability to help you out.