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Mentoring at Mid-Career: Developing Academic Leaders

Faculty Development Leadership and Management

Mentoring at Mid-Career: Developing Academic Leaders

One of the most highly touted high-impact resources for students, faculty, and staff in the academy is mentorship. The research is clear: mentoring matters. According to the literature, mentored faculty and staff report higher levels of work satisfaction, are more productive in scholarly and creative endeavors, and are more likely to take on leadership roles on their campuses (Lunsford et al., 2018). Our mentoring research and practice is grounded in the National Academies definition of mentorship (Dahlberg & Byers-Winston, 2019) below:

Mentorship: a professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.

Decades of research find support for two functions of mentoring across contexts: psychosocial and career (Eby et al., 2008). Psychosocial support involves confidence building and being a role model. Career support involves behaviors such as providing career guidance, sponsorship, and recognition. Effective mentorship requires both types of support as part of an intentional practice to develop others.

While most mentoring initiatives tend to focus on early career faculty (Thomas et al., 2015), there is renewed interest in and realization about the need for mentoring at mid-career (Lunsford & Baker, forthcoming). Mid-career is the longest phase of one’s work and personal trajectories; it is also a time when work roles and responsibilities are enhanced and expectations to assume leadership roles are heightened. Described as “the bridge” in the academy, mid-career faculty are an invaluable resource to their institutions given their institutional knowledge, disciplinary expertise, and their remaining career runway (Baker & Manning, 2021). We argue there is a need for strategic investment in the professional development of mid-career faculty as current and future campus leaders. Such investment is essential to advancing institutional aims and strategic priorities and to fostering employee engagement (Baker et al., 2017).

Mid-career faculty members have varied avenues for leadership as they progress through their careers. One route is to be an expert in their discipline and engage in leadership activities through professional organizations or journals. Another route is to take on institutional leadership roles, such as department chair or assistant dean. In either case, there is a need to equip mid-career faculty members with the skills and knowledge they need to effectively pursue and engage in leadership roles and develop their early career scholars and team members along these leadership pathways. To aid mid-career faculty in their skill development, we offer 10 tips for supporting both psychosocial and career support via mentorship (Table 1).

Mentoring FunctionsStrategies
Confidence BuildingShow your confidence in others—for example, by asking a mid-career faculty member to take on a new role to represent the department. Have a preparatory conversation about how the meetings might go and what might be important to share.
Role ModelingDemonstrate effective leadership by involving faculty in key decisions. For example, be transparent about budgets and seek faculty input on items like distribution of professional development funds. Explain why transparency is a hallmark of effective leadership.
Listening and AffirmingEngage a faculty member in a leadership conversation about their plans for future leadership roles. Listen for how you can support professional development to take on such roles. For example, you might encourage a faculty member to attend a conference on becoming a department chair.
Communicating EffectivelyCreate communication channels. Facilitating opportunities for colleagues to share successes, express concerns, and share their needs and wants is critical to establishing a culture of open communication. For example, Vicki starts department meetings by asking colleagues to share news about recent successes. Annual reviews could include a discussion about what support a person needs in the coming year.
Building TrustBe perceived as approachable. An open door gives a signal of approachability. Consider walking around once per week and saying hello to faculty members. Provide informal opportunities for faculty members to register concerns and successes.
SponsorshipProvide sponsorship opportunities for faculty members to try out leadership roles on an interim or short-term basis. For example, when Laura took a scholarly leave for a Fulbright, she advocated for an associate professor to serve as acting chair.
Stretching AssignmentsEncourage a faculty member to take on a challenging assignment that is slightly outside of their experience but provides visibility and opportunity to build collaboration skills. For example, Laura encouraged an associate professor to be part of a university-wide task force on student wellness.
GuidanceGuide thoughtfully. Mid-career faculty, especially women, may take on too many service activities. Encourage faculty members to be strategic in their service at mid-career. Ask them to consider committees or activities that provide a broader view of the institution or to take on leadership roles in their professional organizations.
Building NetworksCreate connection by introducing mid-career faculty members to campus leaders on and off campus. Knowing campus leaders can help them to envision possible leadership roles and opportunities.
Goal SettingProvide time and space for colleagues to craft professional goals (e.g., the SMART Goal Framework); engage in review and revisions of goals.

Table 1. Mentoring emerging leaders


Baker, V., & Manning, C. (2021). Preparing the next generation of institutional leaders: Strategic supports for mid-career faculty. To Improve the Academy, 40(1), 157–182. https://doi.org/10.3998/tia.963

Baker, V. L., Lunsford, L. G., & Pifer, M. J. (2017). Developing faculty in liberal arts colleges: Aligning individual needs and organizational goals. Rutgers University Press.

Dahlberg, M. L., & Byars-Winston, A. (Eds.) (2019). The science of effective mentorship in STEMM. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25568/the-science-of-effective-mentorship-in-stemm

Eby, L. T., Allen, T. D., Evans, S. C., Ng, T., & DuBois, D. L. (2008). Does mentoring matter? A multidisciplinary meta-analysis comparing mentored and non-mentored individuals. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 72(2), 254–267. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2007.04.005

Lunsford, L., Baker, V., & Pifer, M. (2018). Faculty mentoring faculty: Career stages, relationship quality, and job satisfaction. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 7(2), 139–154. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-08-2017-0055

Lunsford, L. G., & Baker, V. L. (forthcoming). Effective mentoring conversations with faculty: A guide for department chairs, directors, and deans. In V. L. Baker, A. L. Terosky, & L. G. Lunsford (Eds.), Building your academic mid-career toolkit: Cultivating career advancement. Routledge.

Thomas, J., Lunsford, L., & Rodrigues, H. A. (2015). Early career academic staff support: Evaluating mentoring networks. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37(3), 320–329. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2015.1034426

Laura Gail Lunsford, PhD, is professor of psychology and assistant dean of psychology and social work at Campbell University. A US Fulbright Scholar (Germany), she has authored over 50 scholarly works on leadership and mentoring, including the definitive guide for mentoring programs, The Mentor’s Guide (Routledge). She is a cofounder of Lead Mentor Develop.

Vicki L. Baker, PhD, is the E. Maynard Aris Endowed Professor in Economics and Management at Albion College. She has authored over 95 scholarly works on faculty and leadership development, mentoring, and liberal arts colleges. Her recent book is Managing Your Academic Career: A Guide to Re-Envision Mid-Career (Routledge). She is a cofounder of Lead Mentor Develop.


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