Tapping Talent and Leveraging Leadership: Home-growing a Mentorship Program for Building Capacity in a University's Online Organization

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

A university with a mature online organization creates a mentorship program pairing early to mid-career professionals with higher level, experienced staff mentors to foster professional development and career growth. The session discusses purpose, program design, mission, implementation, and evaluation of the Mentor/Mentee program.


Larry holds a PhD in Educational Theory and Policy from Penn State University and an MEd in Leadership, Policy, and Organizations from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. He directs the Online Faculty Development unit at Penn State World Campus and teaches on the Educational Leadership faculty both online and resident instruction. His research interests include online teaching and learning, online faculty development, urban school districts, and educational leadership. Prior to his work in higher education, Larry served in K-12 schools as a teacher, administrator, and principal. Larry is 2012 graduate of the Institute of Emerging Leadership for Online Learning (IELOL), the recipient of the Online Learning Consortium’s Best-in-Track for Faculty Development award (2014, 2015), and a former Pauline Turner Fellowship recipient in the College of Education. Larry is published in education journals including American Educational Research Journal and Peabody Journal of Education.

Extended Abstract

Session Overview:

A Research 1 university with a mature online organization supporting 20,000 students created a Mentor/Mentee program to develop talent, support professional growth, and home-grow capacity within the organization for the present and future. With nearly 58 participants, eight of those pairs with a remote partner, the program was designed for several purposes: 1) to establish a network for sharing ideas, best practices, knowledge, and experiences in different organizational units, 2) to leverage technology to create mentor/mentee pairs at-a-distance, 3) to tap the talent and leadership existing the organization to deepen professional development and assure future sustainability and effectiveness, and 4) to address career growth goals of staff.

The program grew out of requests from staff to experience a formal mentor relationship with leader in the online organization. One official organization goal this request addressed was to make the organization "a great place to work." The program was designed to achieve this goal by pairing mentees with mentors who had expertise in areas of interest and also by breaking down unit barriers so staff could learn the work of other units such as marketing, admissions, academic advising, online faculty development, IT, and other core areas that stand up the university's online degree programs.  

The voluntary program paired early to mid-career professionals with higher level or experienced staff mentors. Once paired, the program offered several orientation meetings, content delivery around the concept and practice of mentorship, regularly scheduled check-ins for the all program participants, and monthly meeting for mentors to share resources helpful in maintaining quality mentorship relationships. This design intended to support both the mentor and mentee in forming and practicing these new professional development relationships. The nature, shape, and timing of the mentorship was left up to the pair to establish and revise as needed. While most mentor pairs were face-to-face, a handful were at-a-distance, posing unique challenges and opportunities for participant pairs.

Additional Benefits of the Program Included:

  • Establishing a mentoring network to foster a better knowledge and appreciation of the work units across the organization and open up possibilities for other professional development opportunities;
  • Teaching staff how to network and build soft skills; 
  • Creating possible job shadowing opportunities; and
  • Structuring opportunities for more open discussion about aspirations and career development between supervisor and staff.

Goals and Activities of the Mentor/Mentee Program Included :

  • Improving work/life balance and addressing common work situations;
  • Developing in areas within one's formal job competencies;
  • Learning about the University and online organization structure;
  • Cultivating relationships to expand one's professional network; and
  • Discovering activities and services available to staff.

Session Presentation Format: 

Through a panel discussion with program designers and representative mentor/mentee pairs (participating through video conferencing), participants will share out their experiences, obstacles, benefits, and lessons learned from the program. Program implementation strategies and assessment will also be discussed.

Audience Engagement:

Through discussion and questions/answer periods, session facilitators will engage audience members in their experiences with and need for mentoring in their organizations. Facilitators will create and monitor a collaborative document with links to information, lingering questions, and a record of topics discussed for information capture later as well as ongoing communication after the conference to share knowledge and support mentorship initiatives in other universities.

Audience Take-aways:

Audience members will gain 1) new ideas for home-growing a meaningful mentor/mentee program in their organizations, 2) insight into how to create a program at no or low costs of finances and capacity, 3) lessons-learned from this program applicable to their own situation, and 4) ongoing professional connection with session facilitators and panel members for future discussions and collaborations.