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Tips for Mentors

At the core of virtually all successful and personally satisfying mentoring is a meaningful relationship with another person. In the past mentors may have connected with others because of a number of visible or documented characteristics they had in common. However, in the world today such commonalities may be more difficult to discern and formal mentoring programs may present a challenge to a mentor as to how to initiate and maintain a quality mentoring relationship.

The following few tips are based on the experience of Rey Carr who has engaged in dozens of informal and formal mentoring relationships.

  • Make a list.
    Preparing for your first meeting: I make a list of things that I would have wanted to know when I was in the position of the person who I will be meeting with. My list might include information about me (as the mentor) about the organization or position, about what it was like to be starting out, about what it was like in a new organization, or about expectations concerning our relationship. I write these details down in note form and then I send them to the person I will be mentoring.

  • Take the initiative.
    I often take the initiative to make the first call, although I do appreciate it when the other person will call to arrange a meeting. I hold my meeting time as essential. I don' t shift it around to accommodate my busy schedule. Only an emergency will alter my date.

  • Be clear about purpose and boundaries.
    Gift-giving, acting as an advocate for career advancement, loaning money, or becoming involved in dispute resolution are all out-of-bounds for me in my mentoring relationships. I feel comfortable talking about ethical or moral issues, however, and I like to be clear about ground rules. I have had different experiences with having a formal agreement. Sometimes I do not have one and other times we may develop a comprehensive agreement document. I have provided example agreement forms used in previous mentoring partnerships.

  • Create an agenda.
    When we meet I ask the other person if it is okay if I identify some items for an agenda. I list two or three and then ask the other person if they have any items they would like to add. Some of my typical items are (1) getting to know each other, (2) logistics, (3) goals and expectations, (4) concerns that might interfere with our meeting together, (5) initial impressions, (6) questions I have about you, and (7) why I think I can be a worthy mentor. Although this might seem trivial, I always make sure that I call the person by the name they prefer to be called. I even have a fun activity that makes this a valuable learning.

  • Listen deeply and ask powerful questions.
    The two skills that I think are essential for successful mentoring are (1) in-depth listening, that is, suspending judgment, listening for understanding and providing an accepting and supportive atmosphere; and (2) asking powerful questions, that is, questions that are challenging in a friendly way and questions that help the other person talk about what is important to that person. I seldom ask "why" questions. Most of my questions can be described as "open-ended" and usually start with "how" or "what." I have created a list of the One Hundred Big Ones (Powerful Questions) to assist mentors with this task.

  • Plan for the next meeting.
    When we come to the end of a meeting I usually ask to review our mutually developed agenda to determine our progress. I then solcit any ideas about what we might want to discuss at our next meeting. I also usually ask for an impression of how this meeting went and what we might be able to do (or stop doing) next time to make the next meeting as good or better.

  • Experiment with process.
    Over a period of several meetings, I might use coaching, role plays, simulations, role rehearsals, experiential learning activities, brainstorming, mind-mapping and other techniques that feel perfectly natural to me. I might also just be. Going for a walk together; sitting on a bench sharing lunch, or in some cases, attending a special event all have meaning for relationship building.

  • Focus on wisdom.
    I see myself as a resource, catalyst, facilitator, idea generator, networker, and problem-solver, but I do not see myself as a person with answers. I do have experience and I think I have learned from those experiences, but I do not see my mentor role as one in which I "tell" another person what to do or how to do it. I freely share what I have done (or have learned), not as a prescription, but more as an example of something from which I gained some wisdom. I also feel comfortable contributing ideas or suggestions, not as a sage, but as a collaborator. (I have heard others reject the role of becoming a mentor because they did not consider themselves to be experts in a particular area. As Grey Owl has said, "I wouldn't let knowing get in the way of being."

  • Maintain and respect privacy, honesty, and integrity.
    I have had experience participating in events where these key values have been jeopardized. I know first hand the disasterous consequences that can accompany violating these values. I can't offer confidentiality in the legal sense, but I can do the best I can to ensure that "what is said in this room stays in this room."

BookCover For an inexpensive booklet on to how to become an effective and imaginative mentor, we recommend Ida Abbott's book, Being an Effective Mentor: 101 Practical Strategies for Success.

This booklet includes ideas that take little time and can be incorporated into your daily work routine. The author has extensive experience in workplace relations, employee retention and the creation of successful mentoring programs. Although she specializes in helping law firms establish mentoring programs, this booklet was written for a broader audience and can be applied to virtually all settings.

The booklet is available from NALP The Association of Law Schools and Legal Employers, 1666 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 325, Washington, DC 20009-1066; Tel: (202) 667-1666; Fax: (202) 265-6735.

For an additional book on mentoring by Ida Abbott, visit our Top Books on Mentoring web page. For a companion booklet on suggestions for working with a mentor, visit our Tips for Working with a Mentor page.

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