Everyone Needs a Mentor - NYUCD’s Commitment to Mentoring Administrators and Staff

Michael P. O'Connor, EdD, MPA

By Michael P. O'Connor, EdD, MPA
Executive Associate Dean for Administration and Finance

While most strategic planning efforts in higher education today identify the critical role of mentoring in the career development of faculty, very few plans explicitly state or focus on the importance of mentoring in the development of administrative and support staff. The shortsightedness inherent in overlooking the mentoring needs of all employees has a negative impact on the overall effectiveness of the organization.

As part of the overall team at NYUCD, administrators and staff play a critical role in enabling the academic and clinical departments to carry out the College’s stated mission, goals, and objectives. Accordingly, the leadership of NYUCD, just as that of any educational institution, must understand the importance of mentorship; embrace the obligation to serve as mentors; and actively provide appropriate mentoring opportunities to enable all members of the academic community to develop professionally. At NYUCD, we have a very strong cadre of administrators and support staff, but we have a responsibility to support them in becoming even better.

My commitment to mentoring administrators and staff is a response to the positive mentoring I have experienced personally. So before turning to NYUCD’s mentoring plan for administrators and staff, let me take just a moment to talk about the three formative mentors I have been privileged to know over the course of my 35-year professional career.

When I was fresh out of college and with no role model at that point in my life, James Scalfaro, Deputy City Clerk for New York City, provided me with the opportunity to work in a professional environment. I had no office experience or etiquette at all. He took me under his wing for several years, even after I moved into another department within the City of New York, and guided me through my transition from a street kid to a developing professional. He nurtured me and taught me how to be successful within the culture of a large bureaucratic, public organization. Under his mentorship, I learned how to work with a diverse group of people; understand and resolve conflict; manage competing demands and priorities; and negotiate and make solid financial decisions. Jim taught me how the NYC Budget Office operated and how decisions were made: some politically, some economically, some socially.

Five years into my professional career and after receiving my MPA, I had the incredible opportunity to work under the guidance and direction of another superb mentor, Professor Matthew Kelly, renowned Arbitrator/Mediator and Director of the Cornell University New York State Industrial and Labor Relations Program in NYC. Matt was a very well-respected “neutral,” who opened the world of labor relations, labor law, and conflict resolution to me.

Matt advised me that, in addition to performing my duties as Administrative Manager at the NYSSLIR Metropolitan Office, I should also be trained both formally and informally in the field of collective bargaining and arbitration. Matt encouraged me to pursue a new graduate certificate program being offered by Cornell University. More important than the 12 graduate-level program credits I completed was the informal time we spent together in his office and occasionally over lunch, in which we would go over course content and review arbitration awards, and he would challenge me to be a critical thinker and better writer.

After the two years of formal training, Matt took me on the road with him, sitting in on Arbitrations, engaging as a Mediator in certain potential labor strike situations, and having me write and edit Arbitration Awards. Matt’s mentoring opened up doors for me that I never knew existed and created a pathway which enabled me to grow professionally and have multiple options. His mentoring skills were truly outstanding and he is the mentoring model I have tried to emulate throughout my career.

My third formative mentor, Robert J. Weiss, MD, was the first Dean to whom I reported directly. Bob provided me with a framework for understanding life in a complex academic health center, including the importance of balancing the needs of academic, research, and student constituencies with the mission, goals, and vision of the organization.

During the five years that Dr. Weiss served as Dean of the Columbia University School of Public Health, I was his Assistant Dean for Finance and Administration. Each day, Dr. Weiss would devote one hour at minimum to sitting with me and going over the events of the last 24 hours. It was in this setting that we would set goals and strategies, review alternative approaches to policy decisions, and outline steps for implementation. His wisdom, creativity, and compassion have had an incredible impact on my life. He encouraged me to teach as well as to pursue my doctoral degree. He was patient, understanding, and caring. After being colleagues and friends for 27 years, I still rely on Bob-who is approaching his 90th birthday-for counsel and advice on both professional and personal issues.

Because I benefited so greatly from my relationships with these three wonderful mentors, I have a deep understanding of and appreciation for the value of mentoring. Accordingly, as a Professor of Health Policy and Management for over 25 years, I have mentored scores of students, some of whom have become professional colleagues and friends. I have enjoyed this role enormously and take pride in the accomplishments of many of my former students, as I do in the achievements of the very diverse group of non-students I have known as a result of working in an academic health center in an urban environment for approximately 28 years. It has been thrilling to watch the development and transformation of people who, given the opportunity to achieve and become successful, have seized the chance to thrive both professionally and personally.

Also, for the past 20 years, I have coached basketball at the CYO, AAU, and, for the past eight years, at the high school varsity level. Throughout my coaching career, I have often invoked the metaphor of basketball as a microcosm of life that I learned from former New York Knick and US Senator Bill Bradley. In this context, teamwork, intelligence, discipline, fun, good sportsmanship, commitment, and always giving 100 percent make you not only a better basketball player, but also a person who is better prepared to deal with other aspects of life.

What’s the Message?
Mentoring of employees is a win-win opportunity wherein both sides achieve mutual gain. The protégé gains new insights, learns in the best possible environment, and grows personally; and the organization develops an employee with more knowledge, understanding, and dedication to the institution. Indeed, the importance of investing in people cannot be overstated. As Jim Collins states in his best-selling book Good to Great, Level 5 leaders (the highest level of executive capabilities) set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation.

I feel strongly that a well-planned, formally organized mentoring program will enhance an institution’s “bottom line.” Accordingly, as part of NYUCD’s strategic planning, we are developing a formal mentoring program for all administrative, technical, and support staff.

Building on the positive momentum generated at NYUCD within a little less than a decade, and combined with the arrival of a new Dean, NYUCD is well positioned to create a model for employee mentoring.

Our goal is to be recognized as an “Employer of Choice”-attracting, recruiting, selecting, training, and retaining the best talent. To that end, our Office of Human Resources and Faculty Services, with its great technical expertise, will design and implement the program in consultation with the Office of the Dean and with representation from all the constituencies involved. We see this as a critical step in creating an environment that fosters the professional development of every individual within our organization.