Last month I talked about being a mentor. In this post I’d like to dive into the other half of the mentoring equation: being a mentee. Of course, being a mentee necessarily requires that you have a mentor. How to begin?
The mentoring relationship can be established in any number of ways. In March's post I talked about mentoring through organic interactions–simply spending time with, and being a leader to, the people you work with daily. This is certainly a very natural way to find a mentor, and one that can directly and immediately impact your professional growth, but it doesn’t work for everyone or in all situations.
Mentors can also be assigned. I recently participated in a mentorship program where the prospective parties to the relationship (in this case, attorneys as mentors and law students as mentees) provided some basic information about themselves. This included their goals for participating in the program and any preferences they wanted to have considered in making mentor-mentee assignments. The law school then paired attorneys with law students for a year-long mentoring program. This format can be a great way to establish a relationship when the mentees may not know who to seek as mentors or how to initiate the conversation. There is an element of chance, however, as the pairings may not work out–personalities may clash, schedules may be incompatible, or any number of other reasons why interpersonal relationships don’t thrive. As with my JAG Corps mentoring experience, this one worked out well, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.
Then there’s what I’ll call the “hybrid” system of acquiring a mentor, where the mentor and the mentee have met, feel a connection, and work to foster that connection and build a relationship. From there one of them may suggest that they establish a more formal mentoring relationship. This is similar to the model that the JAG Corps currently uses, where new attorneys have a certain amount of time after reporting to their first assignment to choose, in writing, a mentor. This way of establishing a mentoring relationship has the benefit of the parties getting to know enough about each other to conclude that they would work well together. It’s more formal than “organic” mentoring but less risky than the “blind” mentoring I did with my law student mentee.
Regardless of the process you employ to find your mentors, the point is this: seek them out. Don’t wait to be assigned a mentor, or for a mentor to reach out to you and “pull you in,” or to be told that you need to have a mentor. Build connections, talk about your goals, and grow relationships with the people you meet who can help you to achieve those goals.
That said, I don’t recommend building relationships only with people who can help you achieve your goals. There is so much more we can all learn from each other than just how to refine our paycheck-earning skills. That’s why it’s important to have mentors of all ages, experience levels, skill sets, and walks of life. Everyone has something to offer, and we are missing out if we stay within our own narrow demographic, for lack of a better word. Personally, I have learned more from non-lawyers than I’ve learned from attorneys. Just because others have different professional experience than I do doesn’t mean they don’t have new and better ideas or more current information on a particular topic. Just because my neighbors are much younger than me doesn’t mean they don’t know a thing or two about how to treat people.
And finally, just because my mentors are older and more experienced in my particular line of work doesn’t mean I have to do everything they have done or advise me to do. This is my final point: that mentees need to be willing to listen and learn, but they should absolutely continue to think for themselves. It takes a certain amount of humility to be mentored, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave yourself behind and become your mentor’s puppet. Mentoring is a conversation, after all, where we draw on each other’s knowledge and experience so that we both come out of the relationship better in some way than when we entered it. Sure, maybe what mentees need to learn is how to prioritize competing tasks or lead a team, and mentors can certainly help with those things. But mentees may also need to learn self-confidence and critical thinking, and discussing a mentor’s advice but then making an independent decision about how, or whether, to follow that advice can often be more valuable than the advice itself.
This may take some humility on the part of the mentor, too–after all, it’s hard when someone disagrees with you! But as I said at the beginning of last month’s post, we are all mentoring each other, and that means we all have to be humble enough to admit we still have something to learn.
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