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How mentoring helped me find my place in our movement

Our research and evaluation lead for learning, Tim Fitches, blogs about the difficulties he experienced starting a new role during the pandemic, and how mentoring helped him limit negative thoughts to feel grounded and focused.

11th April 2022

by Tim Fitches
Research and evaluation lead (Learning), Sport England

Starting a new role is difficult at the best of times. Doing it during a global pandemic even more so.

It was June 2020. In my own little corner of the world, I’d just got back from a run to burn off the last of the nervous energy from my interview. Then a phone call. I’d got the role. Result.

The new role – research and evaluation lead for learning – was created to bring more oomph to how Sport England learns from research and evaluation. It felt perfect, like the culmination of all my professional experience and aspirations rolled into one, and I was excited at the opportunity to support our new strategy Uniting the Movement.

But the uncertain reality made it difficult to gain a foothold in the new role. Normal work was largely paused as we scrambled to respond to Covid-19. Meanwhile I, like many people, found myself working at home battling a sense of isolation and loss of connection.

Big projects kept me busy, like managing our regular Covid-19 activity tracker, and leading a rapid review of inclusive physical activity and ways to reduce inequalities in sport.

But throughout, the nagging sensation that these big projects were masking a lack of agency at a day-to-day level. So too, the feeling that I lacked the internal compass and conviction of where and how my role fitted in.

Like Covid, these feelings stuck around longer than I would have liked. Then, in November 2021, an offer of mentoring from the Insight Management Academy presented a chance to address some of these insecurities.

I, like many people, found myself working at home battling a sense of isolation and loss of connection.

I approached it with a degree of trepidation, unsure if I was willing to bare my professional soul.

After an open and exploratory first chat, it turns out I definitely was. My mentor – Jane Woolley – and I established an easy rapport, talked things through and agreed two goals. I wanted to feel more confident in the contribution I was having. And I wanted to feel more comfortable about where my role fitted.

We began by looking at the purpose of my role, something I often fumbled when attempting to explain to others. With Jane’s external perspective and incisive questions, I revised it.

The new version cuts straight to the heart of my contribution to our strategy.

'To help colleagues and partners improve the effectiveness of initiatives promoting physical activity for all, through the purposeful and deliberate use of evaluation and learning.'

I then applied similar thinking to my six role objectives. Testing them, tweaking them, making them work a bit harder. Defining what was – and just as importantly, what wasn’t – a core part of my role.

Alongside this, the mentoring process continued.

I read a book Jane recommended about finding your contribution.

I experimented by scoring every meeting I attended out of 10 for how purposeful it felt and how satisfied I was with my contribution to it.

I talked with and listened to Jane and reflected on what we discussed.

I had parallel conversations with my line manager, from which I benefited enormously.

And I had many epiphanies while out running, which helped me resolve some of the uncertainty I was feeling.

Diagram of the research and evaluation lead (Learning) objectives

It’s now April 2022. A new work year ahead and I’m looking forward to tackling it all with a renewed sense of clarity about my role and the difference I can make.

My new role purpose and objectives have become the anchor around which I can manage my work (and my workload) in a way that directly contributes to the ambitions of the team, and of the organisation.

My mentoring isn’t yet finished, but I feel like I’ve crested the hill.

The process has brought me a personal clarity that has kept me grounded and focused during turbulent times, and a calm appreciation of my place in the wider movement we’re all part of.

If some of this has rung true for you – if, like me, you sometimes worry, or need validation, or have imposter syndrome about your role – then I have two recommendations.

Firstly, look at your role. I mean really look at it. Challenge it. Critique it. Get an external opinion. Make it work for you. Identify your contribution – the unique and individual difference you make by turning up each day. Then be guided by it.

Secondly, try mentoring. Whether internal or external, formal or informal; whatever arrangement works for you.

Approach it with an open mind and an honest heart. Think about how it could help you, and don’t worry if you’re not sure – because the process itself will bring this out.

If you’d like to find out more then get in touch. I’ll be very happy to talk with you.

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