The benefits for participants of mentoring programs have been well documented. Here we will take a close look at a successful mentoring relationship that has been developed over a vast distance.
Living and working in a remote part of Australia and regularly facing isolation, anthropologist professor Dr Tess Lea (pictured on the left) is often confronted by issues such as gambling, public housing amenity, the social and emotional well-being of ‘at risk’ children and education reform. Working in a remote area also means finding another person to provide advice and be a sounding board especially on business issues, can be difficult. Enter Jules Scarlett (pictured right of Tess), Director of Corporate Security and Investigation at Telstra, to provide much needed support and encouragement to Tess as she works towards improving education outcomes for indigenous children living in remote areas.
Both Tess and Jules are part of a unique mentoring program developed by the Telstra Foundation which links Telstra executives to senior leaders in community organisations.
“This is the first time that Telstra had undertaken this type of community leadership. What’s basically been happening is that through the Telstra Foundation it was recognised that just giving money isn’t necessarily always going to be the best thing – and if that can be supplanted with actual business knowledge, this will add value to the grant that was provided,” said Jules Scarlett.
Pairing Dr Tess Lea, Co-Director for the School of Social and Policy Research at Charles Darwin University (CDU) with Jules Scarlett, in Telstra Foundation’s Community Leadership Program was a perfect fit. Usually separated by thousands of kilometres, Tess Lea has travelled down to Melbourne where her mentor Jules Scarlett lives and works. They are sitting together in close proximity to a speaker phone and to an outsider, listening to the laughter and easy banter going back and forth between these two women, is like witnessing a reunion of old friends.
This isn’t the first time the two women have met in person and Jules has even travelled with Tess to a school on Bathurst Island, located at the top end of Australia. So by the time I met them, Tess and Jules were very comfortable with each other. However, I was curious to know what it is was like in the beginning when the pair were strangers, linked together only in the minds of the program’s coordinators.
Jules Scarlett explains, “We both got a name and the initial introductions were done in that slightly uncomfortable environment where you just sit across from someone and you’re thinking, alright, this could work or this could be quite uncomfortable for a period of time.”
Tess Lea says being mentored by Jules Scarlett has been a very valuable experience for her. “It’s like a lifeline to be able to talk to somebody who is not going to condemn you or judge, but will try and listen to what it is you’re grappling with and suggest some ways forward, or resources to call upon – and given my circumstances, that has been of extraordinary benefit,” said Tess.
Despite Jules Scarlett being the mentor in the relationship, Jules says the benefits have definitely flowed both ways. “We refer to it as co-coaching and I feel like I’ve been as lucky as Tess – she shakes her head but it’s true!” said Jules.
“In a corporate environment you can become relatively cut off from broader challenges that take place in relation to areas such as social policy and making changes in terms of Government policy – and making change in people’s lives. I also get to hear about a whole world I wouldn’t normally get to access at all. Apart from the fact that Tess is really good value we also mange to laugh a lot about all sorts of things.”
The mentoring program was initially suppose to run for 12 months. But after 18 months Tess and Jules are still getting enough mutual benefits from the relationship to continue for the foreseeable future.
Tess Lea is currently heading the Abracadabra! software program that will be tested in a project led by the School for Social and Policy Research at CDU, an initiative funded by the Telstra Foundation. The grant will give young indigenous students a boost in using a computer program and improving the education outcomes for these children.
“We’ve had fantastic results. In the space of ten weeks we accelerated the kids literacy skills by about seven months. But I have to stress that these are preliminary results and not in a test situation with a control group,” said Tess. “Next year if all goes according to plan there will be a fully radomised trial.”
“A lot of policy gets developed based on anecdotes or political pressure at particular time points. But what Tess is trying to do is make sure the policy is based on sound research,” said Jules. “So I feel like I’m connected to something that’s really well founded.”