Ten years ago, Alexandra Schweiger played a leading role in launching the Leibniz Mentoring programme. She still runs the programme today. In this interview, she talks about leaving your comfort zone, successful mentoring tandems and the special energy at the end of the first workshop.


LEIBNIZ ASSOCIATION Alexandra, you played a leading role in setting up the Leibniz Mentoring programme and still run it today. In the meantime, around 240 female scientists have taken part. What is the aim of the programme?

ALEXANDRA SCHWEIGER We want to encourage young female scientists to pursue their careers confidently and proactively. We want them to become aware of the many aspects involved in pursuing a successful career in science – and then take the necessary decisions.

To what extent can a mentor help them on this path?

Mentoring is based on a benevolently biased attitude towards the mentee. Mentors can act as role models, advisors, “sparring partners” or idea generators, providing support, encouragement or constructive criticism and helping their mentees find their own individual solutions, appropriate to their own situation. They can give constructive feedback, communicate opinions and ideas, discuss the requirements of leadership, share knowledge about processes and structures, point out informal rules of the game and open doors to networks.

How do mentees find a mentor who suits them?

Finding and obtaining such a person is included in the programme and is part of the mentees' development. This is because they naturally have to step out of their comfort zone. Approaching someone who may be a big name, who you may not even know yet, and, on top of that, approaching them with a request that involves a considerable commitment – that's not an easy task, and is already a growth opportunity for the mentees.

How are they prepared for this first step?

Before the actual programme begins, there is a workshop designed to help the mentees clarify their current situation. They are supported in reflecting on their short- and medium-term goals, their needs and challenges in order to develop an idea of the issues they want to bring to their tandem partner. What experience, networks or other resources should the mentor have? At the end of this first day, they should walk out with an idea of their ideal mentor. And then they have three months in which to find and approach the right person. We encourage the mentees not to do this by email necessarily, but to approach them in person at a conference or by dropping by the office.

What criteria do the mentees apply when making their choice?

That is very individual. One mentee may want a woman as a role model who has achieved her leadership position despite having children. Another may come from abroad and be looking for someone who has already successfully established themselves permanently in Germany. The most important criterion for a wise choice is that each mentee realises what she needs from her mentor.

Can you say what the success rate of this search is? In other words, how many mentees receive a "yes" from their chosen mentor?

I would estimate that around a fifth of mentees are rejected on their first attempt. But that need not necessarily be a bad thing. Even a "second choice" mentor often turns out to be a stroke of luck in hindsight.

How does the collaboration between mentee and mentor progress from then on?

The mentee is responsible for the framework, i.e. for questions such as: How do we communicate with each other? Can I just call you or should everything be done by email? What are you willing to put in – will you perhaps take me to a conference or invite me to your institute so that I can look over your shoulder for a day? The mentee also takes care of arranging meetings and clearly defining what the topic of the discussion should be. We strongly advise them to prepare well for these meetings in advance. Simply going in and saying, "I'll tell you what's happened to me in the last two months" doesn't usually achieve much. It's also important to meet in person. Zoom makes a lot of things easier and the frequency of meetings has increased, which is certainly a good thing. But face-to-face meetings are simply irreplaceable and we strongly recommend them, especially at the beginning.

What is important for a good relationship?

Openness. Both tandem partners must have the courage to reflect on their collaboration and keep asking themselves: What is going well, what are our expectations and are they being met? Have there been any awkward situations? If both individuals are able to look at these questions from a meta-perspective and readjust if necessary, or simply appreciate what they have – I think that's a huge plus. Something else that is beneficial is if the collaboration takes place on an equal footing! If the mentee realises, or is told, that she also has something valuable to contribute, that is very beneficial. Some basic things go without saying, for instance that there must be sufficient commitment for the tandem partnership.

Children welcome - around half of the mentees are mothers.
The mentoring tandem: ideally a partnership of equals
Are there big differences at this level?

Yes, definitely. There are mentors who get extremely involved and will accompany an entire job application process, for example: They give advice on vacancies that might be suitable and then even go through the application with their mentee. These are often jobs that the mentee wouldn't have applied for herself because she doesn't think she’s ready yet – and then, lo and behold, she’s on the shortlist. Sometimes they do a mock presentation together, or the mentor provides informal information about the process or speaks to someone to get background information.

What motivates the mentors? What do they get out of the collaboration?

Male mentors in particular keep telling me how enriching they find it to be in such a non-hierarchically structured dialogue with a young woman, especially if she has children. A professor once told me that the discussions with his mentee had changed the way he behaved towards his team members who have families. So the programme offers mentors direct, unfiltered access to other life circumstances and therefore also has a culture-changing effect. And what I also hear again and again is that the mentors are pleased with the open feedback from the mentees on their leadership behaviour. Because the higher you get in your career, the less feedback you receive – for hierarchical reasons or out of respect. In the programme, we repeatedly encourage mentees to give feedback on their collaboration. Many mentors are also just happy to help ensure that others do not have to follow the same difficult path they were forced to take at the start of their own careers.

How much does the mentee’s career progress depend on the mentor? Or, to put it another way: how central is this relationship to the programme?

The collaboration in the tandem pairs is central, but there are two other equally important components: the seminars and the mentees themselves, who use each other as a resource in the group. I wouldn't say that a mentee necessarily leaves the programme dissatisfied if the collaboration in the tandem doesn't go so well. The other parts of the programme can make up for this, as the participants have confirmed to me time and again.

What exactly happens in the seminars?

The seminars focus on key career skills, such as professional communication skills, how to secure third-party funding, visibility and networking or how to apply for a professorship.

You accept 26 mentees per year. I assume there are more applications than places. Who selects the mentees and what is the procedure?

In the current round, we had 62 applications. There is a selection committee consisting of one scientific director from each Section, as well as a representative of the Administrative Committee, the spokesperson of the Equal Opportunities and Diversity Working Group and the spokesperson of the Alumnae Network. Each member first draws up a ranking for themselves and then there is a virtual selection meeting in which between 20 and 30 cases are usually discussed. Usually, everyone agrees that the top eight or so applicants can be waved through. The bottom fifteen are also undisputed. But the middle field has to be discussed, and I think the committee always does that very well.

What are the criteria here?

Scientific excellence, of course, but that alone is not enough. The selection committee must be able to see that the applicant is actually on the path to a management position. She must show that she knows what is important in certain areas, for example when it comes to acquiring third-party funding or taking on certain positions. It is also important that she has developed scientific independence. The committee is always very critical if it has the feeling that an applicant is still too dependent on her PI and is not independent enough. However, there have also been cases where the committee has decided that an applicant will make her way even without the programme and therefore does not need special support.

Female scientists from any discipline can apply for the mentoring programme. Some come from abroad, some have families – so a cohort is a colourful mix. Does this always create a new dynamic?

There are certainly mentee groups that get on better than others. But in general, there are more similarities than differences. What is always similar are the issues that the mentees are concerned about and how they grow together over time, recognise each other as a resource and encourage each other.

When you look back, which moments do you remember most fondly?

I always really enjoy the end of the preparatory workshop. The mentees come together for the first time that day and spend a day working intensively on finding the ideal mentor. Most of them are very cautious at first, as they don't know exactly what to expect; some are also sceptical. And at the end of the day, they are beaming and are really keen on the programme. Sometimes I then hear that one of them has already written her first emails to find a mentor on the train back home. This momentum and positive energy is always great.

How does this energy come about – what happens on the first day?

A lot of it is down to the trainers, who are really great and inspiring. But part of it for the mentees is also the experience of not being alone on their path, which they often find rocky and difficult, but sitting here in a room with 25 other women who have the same doubts and face the same challenges. And when they are then shown all the great things that await them in the next year and a half, how they can develop – that gives them a lot of momentum.

Are there any other special moments?

I particularly remember times when things get very personal. For example, when the mentees discuss in seminars where they perceived themselves to have failed – perhaps because of misunderstandings in a communication context. And then it's great to see that the mentees have built up so much trust in each other that they can talk about such personal things. Sometimes someone cries – and is then bolstered and encouraged by the group. I think it's wonderful that this is possible.

You have just emphasised the central role of trainers. How are they selected?

I choose the trainers. Over the years, I have built up a network, including from other contexts. For example, I also organise training courses for the equal opportunities officers and I am in contact with other people who run similar programmes – my colleagues at the Leibniz Leadership Academy, for example. I'm generally always alert when I hear something, or I ask trainers I think highly of whether they can recommend someone to me. And once I've found the right person, I try to work with them over a longer period.

Alexandra Schweiger (bottom row, centre) with participants of the mentoring programme
How would you describe your own role in the programme?

My role involves a lot of things. I am the programme leader and organiser. I am responsible for strategic development. I am the contact person at Leibniz Headquarters establishing links with other areas, and I pass on knowledge and act as a confidant. This last role is very important to me personally. I always say to the mentees that I am biased in their favour – and certainly not a spy from Leibniz Headquarters!

What do you mean by that?

I am employed by the Leibniz Association and I run a programme that aims to get women into leadership positions. But I feel committed to the individual mentees and their development. And by that I mean their personal development, not just their professional development. I also tell them that at the beginning. There is a point where they are asked to record which network they are part of. Especially when it comes to career planning, it's important that they see themselves not just as a researcher, but how they fit into their entire personal and professional landscape: as a mother or wife or daughter. Some are also involved in voluntary work and therefore have other commitments that they perceive as binding. They should take all of this into account. And it is important to me that they know that I would never try to get as many of them as possible to pursue a professorship at all costs. Instead, I want each participant to find the right path for her personally. And if at the end of the programme, as a result of careful consideration and development, one of them says, "Academia is not the right place for me, I'm going into science management or into the civil service" – then I also consider that a successful outcome of the programme.

That’s a good keyword: How do you measure the success of the mentoring programme?

That is a very difficult question. Sure, you can make it easy for yourself and count the number of female professors or alumnae in leadership positions. But with some of them you can't even see how successful they are, at least not in terms of those measures.

Do you always find out what happens to the former mentees?

We try to stay on the ball and keep track of which path the former mentees take, and we usually succeed in doing so. Over the course of ten years, we may have "lost" seven or eight mentees, in that we no longer know where they are or what they are doing. We have a list in which the mentees can enter their own details when they change. I also hear a lot at alumnae network meetings or through passing remarks in emails, and once a year we do our own systematic research.

What do you offer Leibniz Mentoring alumnae?

We have a large database for networking, and there is also a network meeting once a year, which includes training sessions, like this year’s voice and body coaching session. If the budget allows, we organise other workshops outside of the series. Next year there will be something on the topic of self-care: mental health for leaders.

Are there any alumnae who are now mentors themselves?

Yes, there are. That's also a wonderful successful outcome. One alumna from the first round, for example, is now a professor in Tübingen. She is a particularly good example because, as a mentee, she wasn't even in a research position, but was employed in science management. During the Leibniz Mentoring programme, she made the leap to an assistant professorship (Junior-Professur). When I welcomed her as a mentor, she told me that she was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the programme from which she herself had benefited so much.

What is your wish for the programme over the next ten years?

I would like to see a financially secure future for the programme and great mentors – but that’s something we have actually had in every round so far.