Bob Proctor, an author and motivational speaker, said, "A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you."
The term "mentor" traces its roots to Greek mythology. Mentor was a wise man, and friend of Odysseus, who was left in charge of the Greek king’s son, Telemachus, when the great leader left for the Trojan War. Mentor developed a close relationship with Telemachus, encouraged him and fostered his development. As time has passed, the term "mentor" has come to mean someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.
I can attest to the value of mentors in my life and the gratification that has resulted from guiding others. I believe that seeking a mentor to help you in your career is an important step. Think about it — even highly successful athletes, who are at the pinnacle of their professions, have mentors (or coaches) to help them in many aspects of their lives, including the nuances of the very sports that they play. If they need, and can benefit, from such help, why wouldn’t you?
Below are five tips for selecting and working with a mentor. There are many different places that one can search for a mentor, including those outside of your organization and even professional coaches. In this article, though, I focus on potential mentors within your organization, as this is where most people find the guidance that helps propel them in their careers.
• Determine your goals.Don’t approach a mentoring relationship as your personal panacea. You must respect the time that a mentor can provide, as it is quite valuable. Consequently, be very focused with respect to what you hope to achieve, which is most easily accomplished by establishing goals for the relationship.
For younger lawyers, you may want to concentrate on specific skill set development, especially if the more formal training you have received hasn’t worked well. A junior litigator, for example, may establish a goal of learning how to strategically assess a case and develop a roadmap that runs from the pleading stage through trial (and appeals).
More senior lawyers may set goals that are a bit more nuanced, such as how to sidestep career land mines that can befall the unwary, how to make partner (or general counsel), how to develop business, or the nuts and bolts of developing a professional network.
The examples of goals are almost limitless, but establishing them is important, as they tie in to picking the right mentor. If a key goal, for example, is to become a rainmaker, you will be well served by seeking out someone who is a big hitter, rather than a super technical lawyer who could help with skill development, but may not be a business getter.
• Assess other mentors in your life. Spend a few minutes to think about the other key mentoring relationships you have had in your life. These may include guidance received from a parent, close relative, athletic coach, teacher or boss you have had in any number of settings (summer job, clerkship or position in another field). The odds are good that there are some mentoring relationships that were terrific, and others that did not go well.
There are two factors to consider in reviewing your past mentoring relationships. The first is to evaluate the personality types of the mentors with whom you meshed. You may find that you have worked best with people like you, which may be fine. Some people, though, learn best by working with people who do not mirror them; rather, they benefit more from interacting with mentors who complement them. The second factor is to think about the mentors who have helped to push you out of your comfort zone. Many of us need that impetus, and if you fit that mold, then seek out a mentor who is more likely to play that role.
• Select a well-connected, successful mentor. There is a tendency in this realm to "shoot low," as some people feel trepidation about approaching highly successful people to become their mentor. As such, potential protégé may approach those who they think are more likely to say yes, even though many of these people are fine practitioners, but have not ascended to the highest levels. There are two reasons why this is a mistake.
First, if your goals are high (and they should be), why would you not seek out those who have met or exceeded those targets? If you aspire to be a great trial lawyer, you will learn much more from someone who has actually won cases in court, as compared to a well-meaning "litigator," who can’t explain the intricacies of actually taking a matter to verdict. Second, many highly successful people have had mentors in their lives and, as a result, feel some obligation to return the favor. They also realize that a good mentoring result widens their influence in their organization, which is an additional reason why they are more inclined to do this than you may have suspected.
In considering the field of successful mentors who fit your goals and are likely to mesh with you, make sure you approach someone who is well-connected in your organization. There surely may be some "lone wolves" in your firm or company who keep to themselves, but are still quite successful (this may be, for instance, because they inherited a book of business). Unless one of these people has a particular skill that you desperately need help with, that no other person has, I would look for someone who is "in the mix" in your organization. Much of what we do professionally is relationship-driven, and working with someone who has mastered that art will pay dividends.
• Respect the relationship.There are three fundamental things to keep in mind with respect to the relationship you hope to form with a mentor.
First, if you do aim high, as I suggest, you surely will approach someone who is very busy, especially in the 24/7 world in which we operate. It thus behooves you to have fully thought through what you hope to accomplish, and, as suggested above, to have your goals firmly in mind. Your potential mentor will be more inclined to help you if the areas in which you need help are clearly defined.
Second, choose the words that you use, especially when you are initially asking for help, very carefully. If you ask someone if you can "pick his brain" or employ similar phrases, this portends a one-sided relationship in which you simply hope to drain the mentor of knowledge. Instead, the potential mentor is more likely to help if you recognize his success, by mentioning that you "very much would value his insights" or that you "hope to learn from someone who has already accomplished a lot." Following that up with a statement that you are dedicated to embracing what you learn will further establish that you will put effort into this and just won’t bleed the mentor for insights.
Third, do your very best to listen as intently as you can. I have spoken to several mentors who lament that they have worked with some people who they wanted to help, but found that their protégés really did not listen to what they had told them. These people had approached the mentor, as they knew that it would be a good thing to do, but, in their cases, they were so self-absorbed that they used the opportunity to almost compete against the mentor by showing him how smart or talented they were. Don’t be that person — listen to what you are hearing — it may take some time to sink in, but you’ll be glad you did it.
• Reciprocate. Your mentor, by definition, will be someone who is higher up the proverbial food chain. Despite this imbalance, the relationship does not have to be one in which you only take and don’t give back (at least in part).
As you learn more about your mentor, you will better be able to look for things that you can do to begin to reciprocate. For example, you can be on the lookout for articles that you know may be helpful to your mentor, whether they relate to his or her clients or even personal interests (such as hobbies, for example). When you see (or affirmatively look for, and find) these articles, send them to your mentor.
Similarly, no matter how successful your mentor may be, he or she should always be interested in making new connections. You may not be able to give him or her an introduction to a Fortune 50 lawyer or executive who can deliver a huge amount of business, but there very well may be people in your network who could help your mentor in other ways. Give some thought to making such connections or doing other things that may be a small way of saying thank you.
Finally, never forget that if you do find a good mentor, you really do have an obligation to pay that favor forward some day. When that day does come, years from now, when a nervous younger lawyer seeks out your counsel, remember how your mentor helped you. You will honor that mentor by agreeing to help the person who requests your guidance. •