Kerry Wallaert: Mentoring with a Focus on What is Right with Someone

“Instead of focusing on what you don’t have when you look at a job description, what do you have? And how can you state that in the language that’s already in the job description?” Kerry Wallaert approaches mentoring with a focus on “what’s right with you.” When a student is applying for jobs, she helps them articulate their skills and experiences in language that captures their unique strengths. She also coordinates with trainers at the Career Center, where students receive practical job-oriented mentoring and encounter the CliftonStrengths material in a different context.

As a member of the ETD leadership team, Wallaert loves facilitating ETD workshops in GT 1000 and 2000 classes because she is able to get the first-year and transfer students excited, and see the immediate impact. Because Empathy is her #3 strength, she connects with each unique group of students and adapts her teaching strategies accordingly: “I will read a class as they’re coming in, and get a sense of where they’re at,” she explains. “So while we always meet the same objectives, it doesn’t necessarily look the same, because I am tailoring my presentation to that particular class.” This dynamic approach resonates with students: she’s received feedback from professors saying that they’ve seen a difference in their students after her workshop, because “somehow [Wallaert] triggered something in them, and now they’re more engaged.”

Strengths will manifest differently for every person, Wallaert emphasizes, depending on their age, context, perceptions, and circumstances. “Not everybody’s strengths show up the same way. Because I have Achiever in my top five, it shows up as list-making and a satisfaction of checking things off. Not every Achiever will do that. In fact there are some Achievers I know who don’t understand why I’m even making a list. So it’s really very person-dependent,” she explains. “And your other Strengths impact how certain ones show up within your top five,” she continues. “So Learner is not going to be same for everybody across the board, because if you have different Strengths in your top five, it’s going to look different for each person.”

Based on her understanding of the importance of context, Wallaert tailors her advising approach to each individual student and specific situation. If a student is struggling with a Chemistry class, for instance, Wallaert will help them consider how their Strengths influence their learning style: “What Strengths are you using to learn that may not be jiving the way you think they should, or with how the faculty member is teaching? And how can we address this issue you’re having by utilizing your Strengths?”

To help students translate their Strengths into actionable strategies to do better in the particular class they’re struggling with, she helps them find the underlying issue causing their stress. She’ll usually look up the student’s top five Strengths before an appointment, so that she has access to that context before they begin the conversation. Then they’ll sit together and review the student’s Strengths, looking for patterns and insights. For instance, if Maximizer is in the student’s top five, she’ll explain to the student that “typically Maximizers like to look at what’s good, and how they can make it great.” Next she’ll ask the student, “where is that showing up for you, in terms of this academic issue?” And then, she says, “students are able to talk it through.”

Her #3 Strength in Empathy is an important asset to her work in academic advising. Georgia Tech students don’t always love to talk about their feelings, she says. By acknowledging students’ emotional struggles, she helps students open up about deeper issues and process their emotions. She uses her Empathy and Input Strengths to figure out what’s going on with a student, and her Intellection Strength to figure out what to do next. She doesn’t want a student to leave her office without an action plan. Drawing on her Learner and Achiever Strengths, she’ll recommend a plan, or the student will decide what the action steps will be. During the meeting she always has a notebook out, writing everything down, and after the meeting she follows up to make sure the student completed the agreed-upon plan.

As Wallaert helps students figure out who they are and what they care about, Strengths language is beneficial, she says, because it “really helps you understand yourself.” She supports students in being more intentional about how they’re approaching their work. And once students understand their own Strengths, they’re better able to appreciate others’ Strengths as well. For instance, if a student complains that a teammate is a slacker and not doing any work, Wallaert will help the student consider that maybe their teammate has Deliberative in their top five Strengths, and they need more time to think without giving you an immediate response. Or she’ll encourage the student to consider whether they are delegating tasks based on what they don’t want to do, and whether they could instead ask the teammate what they prefer. Wallaert says that it’s really nice to be able to use Strengths language as a tool to dig into some of the things that students are thinking about.

As a professional development tool, Wallaert says, Strengths training has the potential to positively impact Georgia Tech as a whole. Building on the initial GT 1000 and 2000 workshops, faculty could continue incorporating Strengths activities throughout students’ four years of coursework. “I would love to see more people at Georgia Tech involved in Strengths. How can we create sustainable change? I’d love to see Strengths incorporated in HR processes, so all incoming faculty and staff are trained in Strengths, and then they go out and put that into action – tying it into coursework and conversation. It would be super beneficial to help students, faculty, and staff move forward.”

This is the first article in a two-part series about Kerry Wallaert. Learn about her experiences applying her Strengths in the ETD Coaching Circle and her PhD exams here.

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