Sunday, 17 March 2019

A visit from The Career Mum: survival tips

March is the month we traditionally celebrate women, particularly mothers. International Womens' Day, Women's History Month, Mothering Sunday, and Matronalia all take place in this month and I'm sure there are even more festivals I am unaware of. It was fitting then for the Women's Equality Group meeting at my institution to choose March to host a visit from The Career Mum, Amanda Newman.

I've mentioned previously how much I value online groups like The Career Mum, especially as it can be difficult to get alternative support. Amanda created the Facebook group at the end of 2017 and I found it incredibly helpful when I returned to work after my second maternity leave. I'm sure that if it had been in existence after my first it would have been very helpful then too and I may have avoided some of the issues I had. The group welcomes everyone whether they are parents or not, working or not - Amanda is the career mum of the title. It is full of people who provide help with dilemmas around work, whether that be getting into work or balancing responsibilities once in it.

Amanda told us about herself and then followed with a Q&A session. Some of the biggest tips I took away from her talk were:

Map your life so far: I remember dong a similar exercise on the Aurora course and it really does help you understand how far you have come, what your drivers are and to identify your strengths and challenges. This was also the exercise I encouraged the students on the UCL leadership and Management course to do as I strongly believe that self awareness can help people become fantastic leaders.

Map out who can help you: I'm terrible at doing this even though I regularly help others and give them this same advice. As a consequence, I probably struggle through a lot that I don't necessarily need to. Taking this on board, I have just texted a neighbour to see if she can recommend a plumber!

Take up coaching or mentoring wherever possible: I'm completely biased here as I'm training to be a coach; however, I've taken up offers where my colleagues have needed to practise on people and it has already helped me move forwards with a number of goals and stopped me ruminating over them. There are coaching and mentoring circles being set up within the Facebook Group so if you have one near you I would strongly recommend it.

Build your resilience: I've mentioned previously that taking some responsibility for your own happiness, wellbeing and resilience doesn't let the organisations and power structures who make lives very difficult off the hook. However, we can to some extent help ourselves become mentally, physically and emotionally stronger by engaging in exercise, eating well and participating in mindfulness.

Lastly, own your identity. This ties in with the first point about self-awareness. Our identities can be very much tied up with work or those we care for and, while this can be fine, it can lead to problems if there are major changes. Finding out what else interests and drives us can offer some protection. As Stephen Covey wrote in 7 Habits of Effective People, know who you are otherwise others will shape you and your life.

I'd love to know your response to these tips and how you may have approached them? Leave me a comment below!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Using my voice to promote positive mental health.

One in four students are suffering from mental health problems. 64% of PhD candidates are feeling lonely at work. Academic staff feeling overworked is nothing new. This can either seem like an overwhelming problem or, even worse, just the price people are expected to pay for having the privilege of working or studying in academia.

As this year’s University Mental Health Day is all about the power of using your voice, I’d like to tell you about two things I’ve been doing to use mine to help others...


Firstly, I’ve been using my voice to ask questions as part of my coaching practice. I have been practicing my coaching skills on university staff who for various reasons are finding stress in their lives ranging from communication problems and procrastination around deadlines to frustrations with a lack of work-life balance. Throughout the course, I have been learning about the different models and tools I can use to help. These have included: visualising what success might look like, writing meaningful and emotion-laden goals utilising Carol Wilson’s EXACT model, and encouraging the understanding of other’s perspectives via the 51% rule and Perceptual Positioning. By training to be part of the University’s coaching community I get to keep learning, which is something I always love doing, staff achieve progress towards their chosen goal and the University gets happier employees. It’s a win for everyone! 


Secondly, I have recently become involved in the University’s wellbeing group again (I took a break from it due to maternity leave). It is a group of volunteers who provide meditation and mindfulness practices – drawing on each individual’s experience with yoga, tai chi, Qigong, Hindu or Buddhist teachings once a week, every Wednesday 12noon-12.30 in the Meeting House (a multi-faith and none space on campus). Towards the end of last month, I led a session in Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been proven to reduce stress and has become quite popular over the last few years.

There were 15 people in attendance: a mixture of staff and students, male and female with a range of different faiths and nationalities. I started with a brief breathing exercise to encourage people to settle down and feel calm. This was from a book called Happy Teacher’s Change the World which I refer to regularly in my role as an Academic Practice lecturer. I then spent the majority of the 30 minutes going through a detailed body scan taken from Jon Kabatt-Zinn’s book – Wherever you go, there you are.

Towards the end I remembered why I enjoyed doing these sessions so much – the participants seemed so calm and still and this was verified by the comments they made afterwards. We finished with a Loving Kindness meditation which encourages us to put aside our inner judgmental voice and be kind to ourselves, our friends, and those who we may not hold so dearly.

Each week these sessions change in teacher and content and it is a nice space to take time out for one’s self, to regroup and to connect with others in the same environment without having to have a conversation. 

There is increasing evidence of the success coaching in an educational setting can bring and universities are increasing their provision of wellbeing activities. While they won’t solve all life’s ills (or problems related to decreasing budgets, bureaucracy and restructures), they can certainly help towards dealing with them. I’d strongly recommend seeking them out.
Related posts:
For further help with looking after mental health as a student -

Over to you! I’d love to know what you do to promote good mental health. Leave a comment below.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

What’s the difference between coaching and mentoring?

I lead workshops on mentoring as part of my role as an Academic Practice lecturer. All those trying to obtain Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, whether that be through the PgCap or Open portfolio route are required to have a mentor. We recommend that all the mentors who take on this important and rewarding role come to one of the workshops.

I am also training to become a coach so I can become part of the University’s coaching community. Despite making it clear to my ‘clients’ that I am a coach, not a mentor, and therefore cannot give advice - there is still occasionally some confusion. And sometimes frustration too when I won’t tell people what to do.

There are some similarities which often leads to the two words being used interchangeably. However, there are some key differences which show that they shouldn’t. So what are these?

Firstly, definitions:

Coaching is a process which ‘works on improving the performance and wellbeing of an individual or group through setting goals, exploring values and beliefs, and facilitating… plans of action’. Within the wider organisational context this would involve a conversation based around workplace goals and objectives, with the support of the coachee’s line manager.

Mentoring is a process where people ‘impart their own experience, learning and advice to those who are newer to a particular field’. Within the wider organisational context this is a professional development activity which supports the development and learning of the mentee by providing advice and guidance from more experienced colleagues. 

For example, mentees can find out information about other departments and discover tips for coping with returning from long-term sick, carer’s or parental leave. With regards to Academic Practice, the mentor would observe their teaching and help them locate and understand discipline specific pedagogic literature.

Some key similarities: 
  • Coaching and mentoring are both about the development of the individual - this could be their performance at work or their well-being overall. 
  • They both usually feature 1-1 relationships. Group coaching can occur but is less common due to confidentially. 
  • Both involve communication skills and body language. The ability to listen and demonstrate listening are key to both coaching and mentoring so the individual being coached or mentored feels able to talk freely.
  • Both require trust and confidentiality is expected. Trust is fundamental to creating a rapport between those involved. 
  • Both can enhance performance. An individual can explore ideas within a safe space with their coach or receive advice from their mentor - both of which, if put into practice, will lead to progress. 

Some key differences:
  • Time.  They can differ in the amount of time they take. Coaching is solution-focussed with the duration and number of sessions being agreed at the start of the process. Mentoring is a much more fluid process and a relationship can last years as opposed to the weeks or months more common in coaching. 
  • Process. A mentor will provide advice and solutions to their mentee, based on their experiences. A coach will not do this. They will help the coachee to explore ideas and uncover their own answers. This is based on the belief the coachee is more likely to take responsibility and ownership of their choices if they have come up with them. 
  • Job relevance and seniority. A mentor’s experience may be very relevant to the mentee as this is what the advice given will be based on. As the coach is not giving advice and is a neutral force, their own experience of the coachee’s work is less relevant and, in some cases, could cloud the process.
  • Trust. While this is also mentioned as a similarity, the types of trust may differ. There is the added trust the client has of their coach that they know how to coach effectively and will lead the process in an ethical, sensitive and challenging manner. 

In summary,

While there are a number of key similarities between the coaching and mentoring, I think it is important to maintain a distinction so as not to confuse clients. This can also avoid potentially upsetting them when they realise their expectations aren’t going to be met. Clear communication at the beginning of any arrangement is crucial. I also like to send people I am arranging to coach a link to this article by Blaire Palmer on How to be coached.

Related posts: 

Over to you. Those of you who coach do you find similar problems? How do you approach them? 

Quotes from Wilson, C (2014) Performance Coaching,