Department of Primary Industries NSW, Mentoring Program
Increasing Scientists’ Skills and Confidence to become Science Leaders
In 2016, management at the NSW Department of Primary Industries investigated options for developing and sustaining a strong leadership pipeline of research scientists to underpin the growth, sustainability and biosecurity of primary industries in NSW. The Department recognises that science and technology underpins the achievement of stronger primary industries through the 2019-23 strategic plan.
“The sustainability of our Department’s science was a strategic concern to us, and we needed to find a way to build a strong pipeline of science leaders. The risk to our department was not having enough qualified scientists to take the lead and keep our research on par with the world and at the cutting edge of applied science in Australia. We discovered a formal Mentoring program was what we needed; scientists learning from other scientists” said Dr Martin Blumenthal, Manager, Science Excellence, Chief Scientist Branch.
In the last two decades, science-related fields have had difficulty attracting students, despite a steadily growing university cohort. For the Department, this has translated into fewer research scientists overall and even fewer senior scientists available to guide, mentor and support new scientists into senior roles.
Another contributing factor to the lack of natural mentoring, was that scientists within NSW are located in multiple, dispersed regional areas, in varying and often, limited numbers.
Fewer scientists and their geographical dispersion within NSW were hampering the natural pairing of experienced scientists with those less experienced into informal mentoring pairs.
There has tended not to be a strong culture of mentoring within DPI compared to, say, what has generally developed within the university sector (Lee et al. 2007).
Call for a formal mentoring program
To tackle these issues, Dr Blumenthal and the Chief Scientific Officer decided NSW DPI needed a formal mentoring program to link senior research scientists with less experienced scientists, to ensure mentoring occurred and achieved the goals of the department. The aim of the mentoring program was to support scientists in their own field and develop up and coming scientists.
It was thought that developing scientists needed guidance from senior research scientists in two key areas:
- How to publish high quality research regularly to maintain their credibility.
- How to increase their network in order to get research projects off the ground, as well as join other projects in progress.
Recommendation brings Art of Mentoring to the table
When Dr Blumenthal asked his colleague Jane Latimer if she knew anyone who could run a mentoring program, Jane recommended Art of Mentoring. Jane had previously run a successful mentoring program with Melissa Richardson, the Director of Art of Mentoring at the Department of Planning many years prior, and Jane was happy to recommend her company.
Mentoring program achieves strong championship within senior levels
Beginning in August 2016, DPI embarked on an annual program of 7–8 month structured mentoring programs for scientists with the core objective to increase researchers’ skills and confidence to become science leaders.
Additional objectives specific to each mentee included:
- An opportunity for mentees to discuss career goals and aspirations with a scientist whose career they admire.
- An opportunity to reflect on professional challenges and achievements.
- Personal and professional development gained from problem solving and constructive guidance.
It was hoped the program would provide mentors with satisfaction from helping a more junior scientist succeed and contribute to the future success of primary industries research and development in NSW.
The program quickly achieved strong championship within the senior levels of the department with Chief Scientific Officer Dr Philip Wright, the key sponsor of the program, regularly attending program events.
88 participants access best practice mentoring framework within three years
“The team at Art of Mentoring has helped our participants apply and onboard into the program with marketing resources, one step sign-up forms, and an easy-to-use platform. The platform’s matching algorithm guided matching decisions. Having Art of Mentoring manage the program for us has reduced the administrative burden of managing a program of this size. We’ve been pleased with how smoothly everything went, right from the start,” said Dr Blumenthal.
Each year the program has been open to 20 mentoring pairs and 88 participants have completed the program over three years. The mentoring pairs set their own agenda, goals and frequency of meetings, with the Mentee driving the relationship. Resources such as videos, guides and email content are provided to help and encourage best practice mentoring skills. However the structure of the program is flexible to meet different participant engagement styles.
Mentoring Pair: Matt and Stephen
Just as Iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another
Mentor: Matt Broadhurst, Senior Principal Research Scientist with DPI Fisheries at Coffs Harbour
Mentee: Stephen Johnson, Ecologist and Professional Officer with DPI Biosecurity at Orange
Matt and Stephen first met over the phone.The Mentoring collaboration
During a couple of face-to-face meetings Matt and Stephen discussed objectives and realistic outcomes, including:
- Career planning and how to navigate departmental obstacles.
- The need to prioritise publishing empirical science to evoke defensible environmental/resource management within departmental objectives.
As a mentee, Stephen experienced:
- A very different perspective on a scientific career within the department.
- To focus on completing one step at a time, and realising it isn’t a race, but rather a ‘journey’ (to quote ‘The Voice’).
- The realisation a mentor can help one to see the hope within.
As a mentor, Matt learned a few new things as well:
- ‘Weeds’ are, in fact, an important component of government-funded research.
- Everyone has a perspective on their own work that warrants equal consideration.
Mentors don’t have an answer to everything, but via subtle suggestions we can prompt solutions within the brain of the mentee.
Mentoring Pair 2: Ashley and Pip
When Dr Pip Brock’s role as a Leader at DPI was restructured to a Research Officer, she welcomed the opportunity to discuss her next steps with her Mentor, Dr Ashley Webb. As Principal Research Scientist, Manager Grains Agronomy & Pathology Partnership, Ashley helped Pip get back on track and decide whether to pursue the Research Scientist Classification. Together they identified options, talked them through openly and tested practical opportunities.
Pip was pleased with the openness of the conversation without any negative impact on her opportunities within the Department. And when Ashley took 3 weeks’ leave she discussed the idea of Pip acting in her role with her Group Director, who agreed.
‘The program created the opportunity to act in and experience my Mentor’s position, which was a Leader position. I’m hugely grateful to my Mentor for being willing to listen and having a vast amount of experience to share. Perhaps it wasn’t a deliberate strategy—but my mentor built my confidence by providing practical opportunity as much as facilitating my thought process and providing encouragement,’ said Pip.
‘I was really pleased to work with Pip in this program. Some of the challenges we discussed were complex. She did a fantastic job acting in my role. This opened up further opportunities for her,’ said Ashley.
Pip has since gone on to become a mentor in the 2020 program, a move that will further enhance her leadership capability.
80% of participants say the program positively impacted retention.
We also recently completed a survey, asking all participants since 2016 to reflect on their experience in the mentoring program. The intention was to discover the medium to longer term impacts of the mentoring program.
Source: 2019 Post Mentoring Program Longitudinal Survey
Participants who responded to the survey reported many positive benefits from the program:
- 70% of mentees who responded indicated the program positively enhanced their Career/Job Satisfaction.
- 90% mentors and 64% of mentees and reported a positive impact on leadership capacity.
- 80% of mentees indicated the program had both a positive impact on their attitude to their employer and the likelihood of continuing to work in their profession.
- 90% of mentors also indicated the program positively impacted their likelihood of continuing to work in their profession as well as personal learning and growth.
- 85% of participants indicated they valued the Department for offering them the mentoring opportunity.
As observed in most mentoring programs, the benefits to mentors were often significant and surprising. The Department now has a ‘bench’ of mentors who have strengthened their capacity for leading others, and a pool of mentees who have begun already to step up as mentors to others as the program has started cascading to lower levels.
A notable result is that ten mentees have had promotions and
four have had significant career changes since participating in the program. Three mentees have gone on to subsequently being mentors in the program.
When we asked participants the most important benefits they gained from the program, the answers varied.
Mentees noted a range of benefits including:
“Clarification of career direction and opportunities working as a scientist within a government agency.”
“The opportunity to step back, take a look at my own direction and develop an (unwritten) ‘5-year’ plan.”
Mentors also noted benefits often associated with mentoring.
“Learning skills about being a mentor.”
“Enhanced ability to listen & steer mentees into coming up with solutions to their quests.”
Retention and engagement equally as critical as leadership development
With limited numbers of senior scientists spread far and wide across NSW, a formal mentoring program connecting scientists across geographies has been very successful. According to participants, Art of Mentoring’s program has had an overwhelmingly positive influence on their likelihood to stay on in their profession and with the Department, as well as their career and job satisfaction and their attitude to their employer. Retention and engagement has emerged equally as critical as leadership development to the future of Australian science.
Art of Mentoring can help any organisation launch, run or evaluate a mentoring program. For more information please contact us.
Lee, A., Dennis, C. and Campbell, P. 2007. Nature’s guide for mentors. Nature 447, 791-797 (14 June 2007).