Most park and recreation professionals share a passion for the outdoors, athletics and living an active lifestyle. These interests are likely the reason many of us pursued our first job in parks and recreation, and why we chose a career that serves others and their desire to experience recreation. Creating opportunities that inspire people and improve their quality of life is why we do what we do!
As rewarding and enjoyable as our profession is, however, it is not for the faint of heart. Recent graduates committed to earning their way into the field are fighting to survive in an overly competitive job market. Talented young professionals, dedicated to elevating themselves, are engulfed by oversized applicant pools in their quest to obtain the field’s coveted management positions. Those who have achieved success in our field, surely possess a strong work ethic, talent and determination. All admirable and desirable traits, but are they enough to provide people with a competitive edge?
For those motivated to obtain their big break, it is important to remember that our opportunity to inspire and improve the lives of others is not limited to just our constituents and program participants. It also applies to us as professionals as well. There are many factors that contribute to the success of young professionals, but having a mentor — someone who takes an interest in a young professional’s development, inspires and encourages him or her, introduces new opportunities by “opening doors,” and provides guidance to help them reach their full potential — is a very important factor.
Mentorship is defined as “a learning partnership developed for the purpose of sharing technical information, institutional knowledge and insight with respect to a particular occupation, profession or organization.” More precisely, it is a relationship in which a professional inspires a mentee to explore new ideas, take risks and never stop learning. A mentor invests time and energy to support an individual, encourages professional development, and speaks honestly in critical situations, saying what needs to be heard instead of what the mentee wants to hear.
The mentor/mentee relationship must be a two-way street built on a foundation of trust and open and honest communication. Even with the best intentions, if someone is not interested in being mentored, it cannot be forced. The relationship requires a mutual commitment. Mentees should be committed to accepting advice, feedback and suggestions, as well as to showing a desire to be challenged and to work outside of their comfort zone. A mentor commits to sharing institutional knowledge, coaching to effectively use strengths and inspiring a strong work ethic. A successful mentor/mentee relationship may begin by chance, but it endures because of a strong foundation and a desire for self-improvement and the betterment of the profession.
Like top-tier athletes, great mentors adapt to each unique relationship and tailor a mentorship to each individual. Encouraging the pursuit of specific leadership opportunities can provide mentees with a chance to build comprehensive résumés, improve decision-making abilities and provide circumstances to learn “what not to do.” Sharing career miscues will highlight personal experiences and serve as teachable moments to help them avoid similar situations. When young professionals find themselves struggling at low points, it is essential to be supportive and provide reassurance. Remember, plans in our profession rarely happen exactly as envisioned. Mistakes are a part of being a professional, the important lesson is how we respond to those mistakes. Equally as important as learning from mistakes is to celebrate together when successes are achieved.
As we grow and mature in our careers, younger professionals will begin to look to us for leadership; thus, creating an opportunity to fill the role as a mentor and to “pay it forward.” Aiding the growth of another professional is a commendable, rewarding experience. These relationships are rejuvenating. They can instigate passion and help redefine career goals. They develop partnerships to share ideas and breed enthusiasm for our work. Most importantly, your guidance has an impact on a young person’s life! This influence creates a level of satisfaction and pride, which is often overlooked, as the mentee grows into an accomplished employee who ensures the continued success of our industry.
Most recreation professionals can certainly recognize a superb individual, or several, who took an interest in their development, providing guidance, motivation and support that has influenced successful careers. These professionals inspired, reassured and shared their professional networks with us, helping us to develop not only professionally but personally. Reflecting on the impact these relationships have, it’s hard to deny that mentors are often more than teachers, supporters and confidants. They become role models and friends. I, for one, recognize how fortunate I am to have had mentors who cared and nurtured my development as a young professional. As my career evolves, they continue to support and encourage me. Quite simply, their mentorship has been invaluable.
John W. Stutzman, CPRP, is the Recreation Supervisor, City of Golden Valley, Minnesota.