ACADEMICS | Ellen A. Ensher, Ph.D., is a professor of management in the College of Business Administration. She is a leading expert on mentoring, a highly rated speaker and most recently released three courses on mentoring for LinkedIn Learning. She was the 2017 President’s Fritz B. Burns Distinguished Teaching Award winner at LMU. She talked with LMU This Week about her recent trip and work on mentoring as a Fulbright Specialist Awardee in Finland.
LMU This Week: What was the biggest takeaway from your time in Finland? Did anything surprise you?
Ellen Ensher: I think my biggest takeaway is that all the hype about Finland in terms of their educational system, their safety, standard of living and social net they provide for people is all true. For example, in Finland, I had 12 different meetings and presentations. Women were well represented and what I enjoyed the most was the chance to chat with them about much-lauded gender equality. Yep, men really do take their paternity leave to take care of their kids. Interestingly, in Finnish, there are no male or female gender pronouns – the pronoun is gender neutral “Han,” so when a native Finnish speaker speaks English you might hear the he/she pronouns mixed up. “Han” refers to both males/females equally.
LTW: What did you find out about the Finnish educational system?
EE: Their educational system is based on trust. I learned a lot about their educational system but what resonated the most for me is what an administrator I met on the airplane from Vaasa to Helsinki said to me, “Our educational system is based on trust – we trust each other and our students and teachers.” People go into teaching and compete to get into programs – all teachers have master’s degrees and teaching is one of their highest paid professions. In Finland, teachers feel called to teaching and teachers are highly respected.
LTW: Do you think Finns are under the same pressures as U.S. parents?
EE: Their stressors are quite different. I think about Maslow’s classic theory of motivation which is basically the idea that people perform best when their lower-order needs are satisfied so they can attend to their higher-order needs like self-actualization. I had many conversations with people about what stresses them. So many of the things that stress me and my friends and generation are not even an issue in Finland. So for example, these days I am experiencing the classic sandwich generation stress as I have a middle-schooler in a pricey private school. We are in the midst of applying to pricey and competitive high schools, while at the same time my parents require massive amounts of help. In Finland, the social net takes care of all of this. However, Finland is not perfect – the women I spoke with also shared that, like me, the kids are on their devices too much, often wait until the last minute to do their homework and they still feel like women do more of the emotional labor of the home. Many Finnish people I spoke with said the weather, and just relationships in general, are stressful.
LTW: Any noticeable differences between the mentoring landscape in Finland vs. the U.S.?
EE: Some of their mentoring programs are quite sophisticated and some are just beginning. I think mentoring is a natural in Finland as there is such an emphasis on lifelong learning. However, since there is less competition among educational institutions there is also less of an emphasis on meeting goals and measuring results. Probably the biggest idea I shared was the idea of the action-learning project where mentors and protégés work together on a tangible deliverable. Also, the whole educational system is about lifting everyone up to meet a standard. Teachers who learn, do so by mentoring others. So, in a way, mentoring is enmeshed into their system already. My Finnish colleagues really liked the ideas I brought about different forms of mentoring and more structure to programs and relationships.
LTW: How much of a country’s particular culture factors into your mentoring advice?
EE: I intended to share a lot about community-based learning and they loved the applied nature, but all the social problems we have do not exist there, so in that sense that was not applicable.
In the U.S., for businesses, and even universities, the element of competition is woven into what we do; in Finland, it is not. However, Finland is interested in competing more on a global market so I think some of the ideas about making mentoring relationships and programs better and more competitive were of great interest.
LTW: Do you have advice for a person being mentored on building trust with a mentor?
EE: Trust is defined as being truthful, consistent, and transparent. There are five ideas I suggest for building trust with a mentor. First, assess the trust in your relationship with your mentor; second, build trust by taking a risk and self-disclosing; third, keep secrets sacred and be your mentor’s best advocate; fourth, be a truth teller to your mentor; and fifth, set and communicate boundaries. Each of these can be discussed at length, but trust is the foundation for successful mentoring relationships. The most important idea here is that if you want to build trust with your mentor, you must be trustworthy.