The Mentoring Experience

This was an invited article, published by Saul Eisen, Charles Merrill, and Frank Siroky (founders of this MA program) in Vision/Action, the Journal of the Bay Area OD Network, Summer, 1996. While some aspects of the program have changed and evolved since then, the article conveys well our orientation to teaching and learning.

Asking professors or students in the Sonoma State University OD Program (the Program) to write about their mentoring experiences is a bit like asking fish to tell you about water. They're hard to focus on because they are pervasive and woven into the entire two year experience. Thus mentoring in the Program looks more like a network than the traditional pair-in-relationship, because students are involved in multiple formal and informal pairings throughout.

How We Got Here

The mentoring experience in the Program is perhaps best understood in the context of our orientation to teaching and learning, and our beliefs about the practice of OD. The program was started by Saul Eisen, Charles Merrill, and Frank Siroky. Charles specializes in counseling and group process. Frank's expertise is in qualitative research, socio-technical systems and the humanization of the workplace. Saul's training included T-groups with Bob Tannenbaum at UCLA and OD in Herb Shepard's program at Case Western Reserve University. We share a humanistic orientation, a systems perspective, and a preference for adult learning approaches. About 12 years ago we spent a year designing a Masters Program in OD. The Program has continued to evolve and change every year since then. Many of the changes and improvements have come about as a result of student initiatives.

Our Assumptions About The Practice Of OD

Mentoring relationships and experiences are central to the structure and philosophy of our program. We believe that OD is best practiced by people who recognize the primary instrument of the work is their own person--that all the concepts and techniques rest on a foundation of the self in relationship with the client. If that foundation is well developed and accessible, then one's diagnostic vision will be clearer and choices for intervention will be more appropriate. Otherwise, one is only a technician, at risk of being ineffective or worse. Our approach calls for a commitment to doing one's psychological and interpersonal homework; not just in graduate school, but as a necessary discipline to professional practice.

One example of the embedded mentoring relationships in the program is within Charles Merril's facilitation of a two semester group process laboratory course for first year students. He co-facilitates the group each year with one of the second year students who was a group member the previous year; he chooses someone who has demonstrated an interest in and ability to work with the feelings and dynamics that emerge in an interpersonal group. He works as a peer with the student facilitator, using weekly pre- and post- group meetings to discuss issues and strategies, and to de-brief with the student facilitator.

In addition to the use of self as instrument, the Program is built on the following assumptions and beliefs about the practice of OD:

  • The centrality of process work in OD--how we interact and communicate with clients and help clients interact effectively with each other
  • The use of systems theory and the power of systems redesign for effective and lasting change
  • The need to attend to and intervene at multiple levels of human systems within client organizations
  • An orientation to values, empowerment, and human dignity

This perspective takes us beyond the traditional model of graduate education which relies primarily on scholarly reflection and conceptual analysis. Our program interweaves the strands of academic knowledge with those of personal growth, skill development and supervised field experience. Instead of teachers and students, consultants and clients, we work from a co-learner model. Mentoring relationships, or more accurately, mentoring networks, naturally emerge in this context.

Field Work Is Built Into The Program

These assumptions and beliefs have led us to rely on experience-based learning strategies, in the classroom and in supervised field work. Students experience multiple mentoring relationships and interactions in both settings, not just as a single activity with an outside mentor at the conclusion of the academic sequence. The mentoring relationships are embedded in the whole program and opportunities appear in several formats and configurations.

One of the most intense and dramatic of these experiences happens in the second semester, in what we call the Spring Project. Teams of two or three students are charged with finding a client organization and contracting to work on a defined intervention during the semester. They go through contacting and contracting, data-gathering, feedback, problem-solving or redesign, initial implementation, assessment, and closure. They receive supervision in three courses running concurrently with their project: one with an emphasis on systems, a second with an emphasis on consulting skills and methods, and a third on process, focused on interactions among team members.

What students experience from faculty resembles mentoring more than teaching. In addition, each team contracts with a second-year student or an alumni mentor to meet with them and consult to their project.

Camilla Rogers, a current student, describes this interaction: "I listen avidly to second year students' stories. They tell me about all their screw-ups-- about where their teams broke down, how they should've done this or that. Second year students provide a friendly, less-stressed out face. They express interest in what I'm doing and they volunteer to read my papers. They have been especially good listeners."

Second year students have several opportunities to work as teaching assistants in undergraduate or first year graduate classes. These roles tend to create opportunities for more collegial relationships with faculty. They provide some of the most intense mentoring and learning experiences, including reciprocal mentoring. Faculty and TAs meet regularly in a forum we call the Teaching Team.

Judy Kovalaske, a second year student and TA, sees it this way: "The Teaching Team meetings are a place where I feel accepted and appreciated. I am also able to witness a professional group re-organizing the Program to continually respond to students' needs even as we build closer relationships among ourselves as teachers. It was a vivid example of striving for a united effort, yet appreciating the diverse styles of each individual involved. I learned through those experiences about coming to a meaningful consensus--letting things "sit" if there was no consensus possible, accepting ambiguity as a state of creative tension."

Throughout the program students can become involved assisting faculty in a variety of additional activities, such as external consulting engagements, recording at meetings of campus administrative committees, or planning and managing public workshops with professional presenters. These opportunities tend to provide rich learning and experience. There is an entrepreneurial flavor to these activities, with people generating a variety of projects and teaming up in a range of configurations. In this sense the program foreshadows important aspects of professional practice.

These experiences often provide a turning point--a transformative engagement resulting in a sense of empowerment and self-esteem. During one debriefing session in Saul's spring project supervision seminar, Karen Mathre and Monica Sallouti reported a challenging but very successful session with their client group. They realized with great satisfaction that they had worked flawlessly with the client and each other. "We looked at each other," they told us, "and said, 'We were goddesses!' " Saul was charmed by this image. A few months later, he asked Karen and Cessa Sullivan, to join him in guiding a future search conference with one of his clients. On the flight home, he turned to Karen and said, "Can I say it now?" She looked at him, puzzled. Then he exclaimed, "We were goddesses!" and they both beamed.

During the second year, students engage in an internship requiring a minimum of 200 logged hours, although many students do much more. These contracts take many forms. Some students have interned with organizations like Kaiser Permanente, McKesson, and Hewlett Packard. They get mentoring and supervision from an OD person in the organization, as well as from a faculty member. Other students generate a series of shorter internship experiences doing projects in a range of settings--facilitating a community meeting, designing and facilitating a search conference, presenting a workshop, etc. Mentoring arrangements vary, depending on the resource people available in the field setting, but there is always a faculty supervisor. Some students develop internships with consulting firms, like Interaction Associates, Gelinas and James, or the Results Group. Others connect with an individual consultant and work on multiple projects. These relationships often last beyond graduation, and lead to more formal employment or professional collaborations.

White Water Learning

This wide range of structures and experiences provide rich learning opportunities for all of us, including unexpected challenges. The complexity and ambiguity that are inevitable in this way of working and learning often surprise students, especially if they are attached to expectations of a "normal" graduate program. We have come to expect that whatever psychological buttons students bring, they will sooner or later get pushed by the experience. Confusion, frustration, and rebellion, even personal crises are not unusual. Our commitment is to respond to these events not as problems to be solved and gotten out of the way, but as central opportunities for personal learning and professional development. As the analyst said at the end of Portnoy's Complaint, "Very well, now let us begin."

And yet, our teaching style is not formal or authority based. We prefer to work more as co-learners, modeling a collegial style. As Camilla describes it: "One day Frank bounced off a 'puzzlement' --as he would call it--that he was holding and wondering about. It was incredibly timely for me, dealing with action research and the imbalance of power between client and consultant during the interviewing phase. Not only did it help me to hear his perspective, I was uplifted by the fact that he involved me; he didn't want to have it all figured out and then present it in class as a lecture."

And Judy observes, "Active listening is something Saul was always providing us with as a mentor--I see his reflective and creative style as a model of important OD skills. Frank also uses active listening in a unique way--his re-framing statements always clarify an idea that a student has. The three unique styles of Saul, Frank, and Charles give students the OK to be unique themselves--and to develop their own style."

With the help of our students and alumni, we have developed a Program that provides multiple opportunities for students to experience mentoring relationships, while immersed in the full range of activities and behaviors which comprise the practice of OD. To the extent that we are successful, the fish learn to see the water. The self in relationship is the learning and the work.