Learning Together

Finding the power in co-mentoring

January 29, 2015

Kristen Totleben and Kathryn Deiss
From left: Kristen Totleben and Kathryn Deiss.

Everyone can benefit from having a mentor—someone who takes an interest in your growth and development and provides you with experience-based wisdom. In September 2012 we began a traditional, mentor-mentee relationship. We agreed to meet in person at the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting, where Kathryn also attended the President’s Program where organizational and community building expert Peter Block, who presented on the power of equality in relationships and communities.

Block said that by focusing on our abundances (gifts we have and contribute) rather than our deficits (what we lack), we could have a relationship based on “enoughness,” the idea that what we have is enough to sustain our relationship and reach our goals. Inspired by Block’s ideas, we committed to changing our relationship to a co-mentoring one focusing on equality and strengths we both bring to the table.

A co-mentoring relationship works against power differentials and asserts the importance of conscious behaviors. By focusing on opportunities rather than problems, on joint ownership, on our respective gifts, and on the mutual commitment we bring individually, we emphasize our relationship as one where we serve as guides to each other’s thinking.

We set up monthly (sometimes weekly) phone calls and meet in person at least twice a year. Creating an agenda beforehand, we start with news and current projects and then talk about the development or progress of our goals. We approach every conversation as a helping, rather than advising, process. Giving advice reinforces a one-up, one-down type of relationship, in which one person suggests knowing the best decision for the other. Recognizing that people’s lives and careers are unique, we look at the whole person—professionally and personally—and help each other find answers to our own questions.

We approach our conversations with conscious intention, aware of our thinking and actions and adhering to our commitment to equality. The guiding concept of “enoughness” helps us avoid hierarchical behaviors such as deference to experience or dominance due to experience. It is a reminder of the equal footing that is the linchpin in the relationship.

Remaining aware and practicing intentionality can be challenging because of learned behavioral patterns that presume power in a relationship should be relative to years of experience, with one person yielding to the other. The archetypes we automatically play in professional relationships actually prevent us from staying in touch with our intentions. We put a lot of effort into resisting such patterns because we see the benefits.

We’ve both noticed changes in ourselves that ripple out to our professional and personal relationships and in our work. Kristen is more focused on projects, has a clearer sense of her professional interests, and communicate more effectively with colleagues. The experience has helped Kathryn practice what she has long taught—that an equal relationship in mentoring, as in life, is a more dynamic and enriching one. She has also been able to work toward new goals that require deeper focus.

When entering into a mentoring relationship, think about someone you might enjoy working with. Don’t set any limits on who it could be. Co-mentoring has been a rewarding experience for us, giving us respectful freedom to discuss topics we might not have broached in a traditional mentoring relationship. We’re both in control of how we decide to proceed with our careers and plans, and we know we have a safe place to explore what these ideas could and will be.


Karen Maki, deputy director of GBPL, with a "traveler" who is participating in the Tales and Travels program.

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