The term mentor can seem rather lofty: the word has connotations of a grand patron and those in the role can be seen as everything from performance coach and personal cheerleader to a career agony aunt or uncle, and anything between and beyond.

But while mentorship has become something of a business buzzword, behind the hype there is a lot of sense. In career development, mentoring is a valuable tool in helping people to achieve their full potential, open a door into an industry or business, and provide support to move up the ladder. In areas that might feel hard to break into, they can offer a vital partnership. Indeed, the Law Society runs a scheme that invites solicitors to become mentors to those in under-represented groups.

And mentorship is not just for those at the beginning of their careers. Those moving into leadership roles can find that mentors who have been there and done that particularly useful in understanding the challenges they might face. 

Mentoring is also being used to share skills across an organisation regardless of seniority. So-called reverse mentoring was initially used as a way for more senior execs to get up to speed with technology by partnering with younger colleagues but businesses are now utilising the process to shape everything from diversity and engagement to product development and strategy.

This idea of sharing expertise is of particular note to business services professionals. They are ideally placed to help law firms develop areas where lawyers may typically not have had time nor sufficient experience to master skills like client relationship management or pricing negotiation. Business services professionals can be a powerful guiding force where lawyers are increasingly expected to balance technical expertise with commercial capability.

Building trust

 

In theory, the idea of mentoring is a sound one across the board with all parties set to benefit from the advice, experience and views of others. But it is not without dangers. A seasoned executive imparting wisdom to those in junior roles may seem patronising, while a newcomer telling a partner what’s what can come across as cocky.

The latter may be of concern to business services professionals entering a new firm. While they may have much domain knowledge to offer, they must first build rapport with the lawyers they are to help. There needs to be trust, respect and credibility: to be a mentor, you need to demonstrate why you are absolutely the right person to listen to. While your CV and interview may have got you in to the firm in the first place, always be on the look out for how you can continue to establish your credentials such as opportunities to speak at conferences and having articles published in magazines in your field. Understand first the problems the lawyers face and then demonstrate how what you can teach will help to address them.

Managing expectations

 

Patience is a prerequisite for both mentor and mentee: if either party has very different expectations about how quickly they will make progress then the relationship is set for difficulties. It helps to identify parameters around the role: what is the relationship to achieve? Is it a specific focus on sharing knowledge in a defined area, for example? In the case of the business services professional recruited for their skills in a certain domain this is likely to be the case, but the waters are somewhat muddied for those assigned a general mentor on joining a firm. If you have been assigned a mentor, you need to understand whether they are there simply to show you the ropes so you can get acquainted with the business or will the mentor always be on hand to provide support and direction?

There is another possible problem in that such relationships can feel somewhat forced, especially if a mentor perceives that the role has been somewhat pushed on them when they are already under constant demands. Mentors must be able to offer their time willingly and graciously. A mentee must also respect the time allocated.

Realising the benefits

 

Those able to sidestep the potential downsides can find mentorship can be a positive experience for all concerned. Being a mentor can be very fulfilling. Okay, so it may not live up to the image of an all-powerful patron bestowing their goodwill on to an ever-grateful protégé but watching a colleague shine because of your direct input is rewarding. For mentees, knowing you have that extra element of support on hand provides encouragement and a further incentive to excel.

Firms that can create successful mentorship programmes can help to unite a multi-generational workforce, encourage employee engagement and develop a strong bank of skills across the organisation.

 

 

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