Mentoring – Just another lecture?


This is not an article about mentoring somebody.

Mentoring articles abound.

Google will return you thousands upon thousands of articles, blogs, pamphlets and professional services that relate to the benefits of mentoring.  So I’m not going to write about that.

I’m also not going to write about “how to be a good mentor”.  Although that information might be useful for some, it is also the subject of a great deal of publication already.

This article is about how to be mentored.

Yes that’s right – it’s about how you, a protege (or mentee – a correct but ugly word) can go about making your mentoring relationship effective and beneficial.

Many professional firms have formal mentoring programs which compel junior staff to have a mentor.  In one sense I think that’s fantastic, because it gives junior staff a great opportunity to gain perspective from somebody else’s experiences.  On the other hand, so many relationships formed out of that compulsory system resemble more of a gossip/chit-chat session than mentoring.  That can be due to many factors, but it doesn’t mean that you get to point the finger at the mentor.

Here are my tips on how to get the most out of your mentoring relationship.

Know Why You are There

If the only reason that you attend a “mentoring session” with your mentor is because of a strict requirement that you do so, then you are wasting both your valuable time and that of your mentor.  It’s not only unproductive, but it’s also pretty rude.

Since you have to attend – why not turn over a new leaf, and start trying to discern a more positive purpose for your discussions.  What is it that you want to ask, learn, discuss, experience?  What characteristics does your mentor have that you admire, respect, appreciate or want to learn for yourself?  Where did they come from, what is their background, how did they get to their station today?  How do they deal with clients, family, friends, conflicts, legal issues, moral dilemmas, finances, emotional problems or any other of the myriad of things that might face you going forward?

Basically – decide on a purpose for your meetings.  Know what you want to get, and what you want to ask.  If you’re making your mentor do all the work by dragging discussion out of you like blood from a stone, then any benefits you get will likely be minimised.

Know Why They are Mentoring you

Why did they agree to be a mentor?  Specifically, why did they agree to be yours?  Have you ever wondered?  Your mentor is generously giving you their time (often at considerable cost to either themselves or the firm), so wouldn’t it be good to know why they are doing that?  Finding out their motivation in the whole endeavour will be a good start to figuring out how it is that they can help you in your own career.  The context of their life will also often be a source of encouragement to you.  Your mentor’s own hopes, dreams and aspirations can be a great way of re-energising yourself if you’re feeling a bit low.

Prepare for your Mentoring Discussions

Does this sound familiar:  “Hi Joe, how’s it going?”  “Yeah, good thanks Bob – you?”  “Yeah I’m doing alright” ……[awkward silence then prevails]

Take some time before your discussions with your mentor to think about what’s happened since your last discussion.  Did you have any goals set?  How are they going?  Have you done them, decided they were stupid goals, tried but failed, or decided on a new direction?  You are the beneficiary of the relationship, so it’s up to you to drive the discussion.  Did any issues come up recently that you wanted to discuss?  Any client problems that you feel could have been dealt with better and wanted to discuss?

Again, your mentor is usually there because they genuinely want to help out as best they can.  However, they can’t just continually fabricate items for discussion and expect that will be of great benefit to you.  Instead, why don’t YOU take the initiative and figure out some topics that are on your mind.

Honesty and Transparency

It is a regrettable side effect of short term mentoring relationships that people often do not get past the veneer of polite civility.  Over time, however, as the relationship develops (if given a chance to) then your honesty and transparency with your mentor will give them far better tools to help you.

That will, of course, involve some personal risk on your part – you risk sharing something personal and not getting the response you were hoping for, or finding that your mentor is ill equipped to deal with that topic.  Use your discernment, and ensure that any personal information you might share is relevant to the topic, and going to help your mentor provide you with better advice or at least more pertinent conversation.

Mentoring is 2-way

Although your mentor does (or should) generally have more experience or expertise than you, it’s not to say that the relationship is one where they speak and you listen.  The relationship is as enriching to them as it is to you.  The fact that you are young does not mean that you sit and listen, doe-eyed, while your mentor drones on endlessly about how things were “when they were a kid”.  If your mentoring meetings are completely one-sided, you might as well just ask your mentor to make a recording for you – because it’s less of a mentoring relationship, and more of a podcast.

The point is – mentoring is relationship.  It’s the same as any other, with complexity, nuance and personality involved.  But is has to be 2 way communication, not a monologue.

Conclusion

If you are in a mentoring relationship, then I would encourage you to stick with it.  A good mentor can help you in ways throughout your life that, right now, you might not even notice.  But remember that mentors are neither your lecturer nor your tutor – they are not an extension of university study.  It is not a process of them telling you everything they know and you listening patiently.  Rather, mentoring is a relationship in which you have a part to play.  Take your part seriously, and your mentoring relationship will flourish.  After all – it takes 2 to tango….*

*Disclaimer – Chris does not suggest that the tango form any part of your mentoring relationship.

Happy Lawyering!

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