Busting Myths About Mentoring
Miriam Bamberger, CPCC, and Heather Bradley, CPCC, are the co-founders of The Flourishing Company, which helps emerging professionals sharpen their leadership skills to generate immediate and lasting changes in their ability to successfully manage complex work relationships. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
Mentoring can be traced back to the Stone Age when "especially talented flint knappers, healers, cave artists, and shamans instructed younger people in the arts and knowledge needed to perpetuate their skills," as indicated by author Gordon F. Shea in the book Mentoring: Helping Employees Reach Their Full Potential. How is it, then, that thousands of years later, we are still figuring out how to make mentoring work?
Part of the challenge is that since the Stone Age, many myths about mentoring have sprung up. This article examines four myths about mentoring and demonstrates how the Flourishing Process, introduced in the January/February issue of Diversity & the Bar magazine, can be used to create rewarding mentoring relationships.
First, let's review the concept of mentoring. According to Be Your Own Mentor, by Sheila Wellington and Catalyst, "Mentors are more important to career success than hard work, more important than talent, more important than intelligence. Why? Because you need to learn how to operate in the work world and mentors can teach you how. The dictionary will tell you that a mentor is 'an experienced and trusted counselor.' At work, that translates into a person who can hook you up with the experiences and people you need to move ahead-and tell you how to handle them. Mentors can show you the ropes. And pull strings."
As Ida Abbott concludes in Lawyer's Professional Development, "Mentoring is especially critical for women and minority associates. Studies of women and minority lawyers consistently find that the absence of mentors is a serious impediment to their career advancement. But these lawyers have a harder time finding mentors. They face an inherent disadvantage because of the dearth of women and minority partners, and the reluctance of many majority male partners to serve as their mentors. Women and lawyers of color also tend to be excluded from informal social net- works where many lawyers meet their future mentors. As a result, they do not find mentors as easily or frequently as their white male counterparts."
So how can you gain access to the mentors you need to promote your career? Well, this can be accomplished by busting the myths about mentoring that have become pervasive in our workplace.
Myth #1 – Mentors and mentees need to look alike.
To bust Myth #1, we start with the first step in The Flourishing Process: clarity-what do you want? When considering a mentoring relationship, what do you expect to give and what do you expect to get? Once you are clear about what you want, seek out the person who is the most skilled in the area(s) you have targeted, regardless of that person's gender or race.
At MCCA's Creating Pathways to Diversity conference in October 2002, MCCA® Board Member Anthony Greene, director, Herbert L. Jamison & Co, took attendees to task on limiting their acceptable mentor pool. "Minority mentees must take more risk in trusting people who look different, especially when they want to break into areas that don't have a lot of diversity." As you identify the area in which you want mentoring support, search for someone who has an impressive track record in that specific area.
Another practical reason for seeking mentors who are not like you is to increase your sphere of influence and access. As Abbott points out, mentors are able to bring mentees into informal social networks. In addition to feeling more comfortable in these informal networks, this access will give you insights into organizational dynamics that will help you adapt to the work environment. The more you are able to gain different perspectives on any given topic or circumstance, the more quickly you will be able to master it.
Myth #2 – Your mentor needs to work in your organization.
Without question, formal internal mentoring programs can be a source of great support. Again, clarity is critical. If you are searching for a mentor who can help you effectively operate inside your organization, it makes sense to look for someone inside.
Yet that's not the only, or always the best, strategy. Sometimes the best potential mentors work outside of your organization. For example, if you want help in a specific subject or skill area, the best source may not be in your company or firm. Or, if you want a reality check on a situation, you may not want to discuss it with someone in-house. Abbott acknowledges the value of sponsored mentor programs and goes on to caution "associates cannot rely entirely on assigned mentors for their professional development and career guidance. They should learn what they can from their assigned mentors and use that knowledge and experience to find other mentors who can help them throughout their careers." Wellington concurs, saying, "This external mentor's objective views may prove invaluable, and you may be able to reveal yourself more freely than you'd dare with an inside mentor."
Myth # 3 – Mentoring requires a lot of work.
Most mentoring, even under the auspices of a structured program, is informal. In some cases, the mentor or mentee approaches the other and makes a request for a relationship. In other cases, a formal company program assigns two people to work together. More often, a relationship evolves naturally, by one person asking for advice, or another offering it. However it begins, a relationship is created, but heavy structure is not necessary. What is required is clear communication and agreed-upon expectations. Once again, clarity is key. Each individual must know what he or she wants independently, and, together, they must agree what they want collectively.
When approaching a prospective mentor, Wellington suggests, "Start small. Don't scare off a potential mentor by asking for too much. The idea of mentoring can seem like another major responsibility; the person might turn you down if the job seems too big. So don't lay it all on your potential mentor at first. Let the relationship evolve. Be realistic about what someone can give you. Build rapport over time. When seeking an informational mentor, it's not a bad idea to try a little subtlety. Leave the word 'mentor' out of the conversation."
Myth #4 – You only have one mentor and only at the beginning of your career.
As we discussed, it's critical to understand what you want from a mentoring relationship, so you know whom to approach. In most cases, one person is not going to be able to meet all of your needs. You may benefit over the span of your career by having more than one mentor. You may even need different people for different issues at the same time. As Jean Otte of Women Unlimited, a mentoring organization, observed, "You don't need a single mentor helping you throughout a career; you need a mind-set that allows you to learn from those around you."
As your career progresses, your needs will change. At many points along your career path, you can benefit from a mentor. Abbott offers a broader perspective for even the most senior professionals to consider. "Lawyers need mentors at every stage of their careers, especially when they assume new responsibilities or face changes, challenges, or transitions." She goes on to say that this process does not end with partnership or promotion. A mentor will offer invaluable advice as you assume advanced leadership roles and transition into retirement.
What is Your Individual Plan for Mentoring?
|What do you want from a mentor?
||What choices do you need to make to initiate and maintain the relationship?
||What steps do you need to take to make it happen?
Review the process below, then schedule some time with yourself to work through the steps to create your own personal plan.
Step 1 – Clarity
By becoming clear about what you want to achieve, you can create the mentoring opportunities that will work best for you. Some common questions to ask yourself.
- What do you want to gain from a mentoring relationship?
- What skills or practice areas do you want to focus on
- What kind of relationship do you want (formal, informal, or something else)?
- What does it look like?
- What formal mentoring opportunities are available within your organization?
- Are they sufficient to meet your needs?
- Who is in your pool of possible mentors?
Step 2 – Choice
Once you are clear about what you want to get from your mentoring relationships, you are in a better position to make choices about whom to approach and how to structure your time together. In this phase, you now focus on the following:
- Approach each candidate to discuss his/her interest and availability.
- Select your mentor(s)
- Set goals for yourself.
Step 3 – Action
Now that you've decided what you want to accomplish, identify the specific steps you need to take to make it happen.
- Initiate contact with your mentor and plan meetings at agreed upon frequency.
- Set realistic expectations and "rules of the relationship" with your mentor.
- Track and discuss your progress.
Becoming a Mentor: What's in it for Me?
Up to this point, the focus has been on the mentee's perspective because individuals ultimately manage their own career success. Consider expanding your personal development strategy to include becoming a mentor. You can gain as much, if not more, than you give. As a mentor, you can gain personal satisfaction from helping promising lawyers learn and grow. In addition, mentoring can help you acquire new perspectives, hone professional skills, aid in your daily work, and energize your relationships with colleagues.
Mentoring gives you yet another opportunity to take control of your career. By busting these four myths and developing a personal mentoring plan, you will ensure that your career doesn't languish in the Stone Age and you will benefit from the wisdom and experience of those you emulate.
Miriam Bamberger and Heather Bradley are the cofounders of The Flourishing Company, which helps emerging professionals sharpen their leadership skills to generate immediate and lasting changes in their ability to successfully manage complex work relationships. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
MCCA's Professional Development Forum
Throughout 2003, MCCA® is initiating an integrated strategy to assist members in taking responsibility for their professional development. This article is the second in a series that will address a collection of specific skills to assist members in proactively managing their own careers. Each article will be supported by companion teleclasses known as Diversity & the Bar® Briefs. The Mentoring teleclass is scheduled for April 30 at 4:00 pm (eastern standard time).
Registration is on a first-come basis and will be limited. For additional information, contact MCCA at 202.371.5909.
- Mentoring: Helping Employees Reach their Full Potential, by Gordon F. Shea, AMA
- Lawyers' Professional Development, The Legal Employer's Comprehensive Guide, by Ida Abbott, National Association for Law Placement, Inc.
- Be Your Own Mentor, by Sheila Wellington and Catalyst, Random House, New York
From the March/April 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®