In Appreciation of My Networks

by Bryan Hanson, Ombudsperson, The Graduate School at Virginia Tech

Working as an ombudsman creates a sense of isolation at times, especially when you are a sole practitioner within an organization. This is a dynamic that became my reality when I took on the role of ombudsman for a university in a rural community. Throughout my career as a conflict engagement professional, I’ve relied on strong networks to help me through phases of my professional development. Fortunately, I’ve been located in communities that had many experienced professionals with whom I could engage and work on a regular basis. Now that I am in a rural community, I must rely on networks that I maintain from a distance.

As a newcomer to the ombudsman profession, I am finding that access to a strong network of support is critical as I navigate the situations I encounter on a daily basis. However, as I become more focused in my work as a conflict practitioner, I have realized that not only is my geographic location a challenge, the wider community of professionals sharing this role is much smaller. Fortunately, I am finding that my colleagues serving as ombudsmen in other institutions are very open to communication and engaging on a level that provides the needed support to ensure that I remain on the right path.

It is with great appreciation that I felt the need to acknowledge the level of support these networks provide and also to encourage others to foster the networks available to them. To do this I wanted to share my story of network development as an ombudsman in a rural community and hope that it inspires the sharing of other ombudsmen’s experiences with the networks that support them. By illustrating the many opportunities to get engaged with those that can be supportive of our success in our role, this interchange will hopefully benefit others new to the field and those who simply feel they could gain value by expanding their networks.

As mentioned, I’ve long appreciated the value of formal professional associations for the resources and general direction to succeed as a practitioner. The Association for Conflict Resolution has long been a home for this support and the International Ombudsman Association has more recently become a valued resource as I focus on this particular role as a professional. The story I want to share today, though, is in relation to the high value I receive from my informal networks as an ombudsman.

First, I have been fortunate to connect with a small group of ombudsmen in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Originally a group of ombudsmen that met in person in the Northern Virginia/Maryland region, the Mid-Atlantic Ombuds Network (MON) kindly invited me to join in on its monthly discussions. These discussions provide the opportunity to share recent topics of interest in relation to the work we are doing, as well as discuss cases that we may desire talking through to get thoughts and perspectives for working successfully with the visitors involved. To supplement these monthly discussions, we also stay connected via email and share resources via a Google Doc. It is a fairly simplified informal network, yet it provides immense benefit to my role. As one of the other members in this network put it:

“I think the value to me has been having some reality check between annual conferences from MON members when you get challenged on your campus, you have someone who can affirm that you know what you are talking about. When you start to doubt yourself or get overwhelmed, there are people to call who really understand what you are experiencing. Counselors need to have their own counselors and I think ombuds need their own ombuds.”

The second informal network, which is starting to become more formalized as we develop, is much more expansive in terms of its geographic dispersion. This is the Emerging Ombuds Network (EON). EON is meant to provide a support structure and platform for those ombudsmen who are new to their roles. The mission reads as follows:

EON’s mission is to advocate for and support the development of emerging ombuds and the ombuds profession.

We do this by:

  • sharing resources
  • engaging in dialogue
  • identifying pathways into the profession
  • providing a community of support

EON provides a wonderful, asynchronous opportunity to engage in conversation, participate in activities, and share resources via the Slack platform (eonombuds.slack.com). EON also provides messaging via a newly developed Twitter feed that all are encouraged to follow (@eonombuds).  If you are new to the field, or are interested in jumping into the role of an ombudsman, then EON is a viable place to provide support along the way.

These are two representations of informal networks that I greatly appreciate and count on for my success and growth as an ombudsman. I am aware that there are many other networks out there that provide this same value to other professionals. If you are reading this and want to share the networks that you find valuable, I feel it would add to the enrichment of others’ professional development strategies. So, I will end this post with these two questions:

  • What informal networks do you rely on for success in your role as an ombudsman?
  • How can others get involved with those networks?
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