Last week I wrote at length on relationships. Specifically, How To Turn A Casual Relationship Into A Real Relationship. In that post, I discussed three broad network categories, noting that all the relationships in your life are not equal. In the post I focused on casual relationships and moving people from that category to the true network category. But I also mentioned mentors, which is the third of the three big pillars of network categories, and perhaps the most important if you are a young lawyer or new associate.

In last week’s post I briefly touched on mentors:

…you’re only ever going to have a limited number of them. But who they are will likely change over time. If you want new or different mentors, you’ll have to get out and find them. Mentors are generally special people who have limited time and energy. They are also likely already in a mentoring relationship with at least one other person. You have to give them a reason to consider you.

But as finding mentors and receiving mentorship are huge, monumental steps in your personal/professional life, I didn’t want to try and cram it into that post. Mentoring a topic that is worth exploring at length. Let’s start at the top: what exactly is a mentor?

The True Purpose Of A Mentor

Often times, the first word that people use to describe mentors is “cheerleader.” That a mentor is someone who encourages and praises you.

I have never found this to be the case. In fact, if all someone who was theoretically “mentoring” me did was offer praise and encouragement, I would not consider them to be my mentor. Sure there will be times that a mentor will offer praise. But those times will likely be few and far between. A mentor who only gives praise is more akin to a fawning parent. Nice to have, but not the purpose of a mentor.

A mentor is not only there to encourage you.

A mentor is not only there to motivate you.

A mentor is not only there to inspire you.

A mentor’s primary purpose is to cultivate growth.

And growth is not easy. Growth is change. Growth is painful. Growth involves leaving behind certain aspects of your old self in order to make room for what you want to become.

To Sharpen A Blade You Must Break It Down

In a post a couple years ago I discussed my time as an uchi-deshi (a full-time live-in student at a Japanese martial arts school), and the type of training and classes I endured. In particular there were special classes reserved for senior students called kenshu (“sword sharpening”). In the post I touch on literal sword sharpening:

…To bring an edge to a blade, to make is capable of cutting and piercing, it must be ground and filed. The metal on the blade must be removed – broken away –  again and again before the edge is revealed. The edge is never “created” – it always exists innate in the metal. The potential to cut always lies in the blade. In sharpening a blade the excess is stripped away, revealing the inherent edge in the metal.

Sure there are times you will polish or admire a blade, but for it to achieve its primary purpose – to be sharp enough to cut and pierce – most frequently you will spend time sharpening the blade. Which is what a true mentor should do for you.

You need to find mentors who will challenge you. Point out your flaws. Tell you the “hard truths” other won’t. That’s what makes a mentor valuable. Mentors have the ability to see into you and know what is needed to push you towards growth. They are there to help sharpen you, not praise you until you shine.

That’s also not to say that you should tolerate mentors whose criticism veers towards abuse. If someone who is hypothetically mentoring you only offers scorn and belittlement, that person isn’t a mentor, they’re likely just a jerk. True mentors will encourage growth in their proteges through a number of different avenues:

  • Offering honest feedback
  • Doling out constructive criticism
  • Providing advice based on their past experience
  • Serve as a role model and example of success in your pursuit
  • Act as a sounding board for your ideas
  • Expose you to their array of resources and networks if needed
  • Helping plan or devise a strategy for handling a difficult situation
  • Encouraging you to take calculated and constructive risks*
  • A swift kick in the ass

These are all traits and qualities you should seek out when you are looking for a mentor. Which brings us to the truly difficult task: how to find a mentor?

You Have To Already Be Good To Find A Mentor

Finding mentors is difficult because by their very nature they are rare. Mentors are people who have been there and done that and feel obliged to give back to those younger or junior to them. Likely because they received some type of mentorship while they were in the same spot you are now. But because they are special and have achieved success in their chosen field, they are also likely to be quite busy. They have time for mentoring, but not too much time. They aren’t just going to mentor anyone who comes up to them. Which brings up two very important points:

  • You’ll likely never get a mentor by asking. Mentor relationships emerge organically.
  • You have to be good enough in the first place for a mentor to want to take you under their wing.

If you’re just starting off in your career or a new avenue of work or activity, you’re likely not good enough to have a mentor. That’s a hard truth, but it is the truth. You need to be a self-starter and figure out as much as you can on your own before you find someone who is willing to help. No one who is successful and busy has the time to bring you up from scratch.

Mentors can spot potential. Mentors look for diamonds in the rough. Mentors want to take on someone who is already good, but not yet great. You have to work yourself up to good on your own. Only then can you begin to attract the attention of a potential mentor. Even then, you can’t just show up and beg to be mentored. No one likes people looking for a hand out. To attract a mentor, you first have to able to add value to their life first.

For people just starting out looking for mentors, this seems counter-intuitive. “Wait – but I want them to help me!”

Sure, but why are they going to help you in the first place? They don’t know you. Again, going back to How To Turn A Casual Relationship Into A Real Relationship:

No one likes a leech, a hanger-on, or someone begging for scraps. But people do appreciate others who offer to help without being asked and seek nothing in return. It shows a genuine interest in what the other person is doing…

you have to show that you are willing to do the same AND you have to do it first.

It’s incredibly unlikely that you are going to meet someone who is going to jump from a casual relationship straight to mentorship. You first have to move them into your true network category first. You have to get on their radar first. Then you have to stay there. An easy way to do so is to continually try and be useful while staying in touch. By doing so you can begin to develop “relationship trust equity.”

Give In Order To Get

An easy way to understand relationship trust equity is by looking at an example:

Allison, a young associate, meets Barbara, a mid level partner at a different firm who does the type of work she wants to do. Over the course of a few months, Allison interacts with Barbara at various bar events and social functions. Allison follows up with Barbara, emailing relevant information about their conversations, with the aim that the articles or research Allison sends to Baraba will be helpful or constructive in some way. Allison doesn’t bombard Baraba, but maybe touches base with a an article or recent judicial opinion relevant to Barbara’s practice area once or twice a month.

What Allison is creating within Barbara is a sense of obligation. Allison is

  1. displaying that she has some knowledge about Barbara’s practice,
  2. showing initiative by finding information for Barbara on her own time, and
  3. doing so without prompting or asking for anything in return.

What Allison has been doing is building up relationship trust equity. She is shaping and molding a sense of value in Barbara’s mind. Once Allison has built up enough relationship trust equity, only then can she “cash out” some of those shares and ask something from Barbara.

  • “Barbara, if you have time next week, can we grab coffee and talk about X issue I’m having at work?
  • “Barbara, I’m writing an article on [practice area that they both work on]. I’ve got a rough draft together, could you take a minute to look it over?”
  • “Barbara, I’m thinking about making a lateral move to a different firm. Could we hop on the phone and talk about it for a minute?”

If Allison had done any of the above upon first meeting Barbara, she would have been rebuffed. Only after moving Barbara from a casual relationship to a true network, and then building up enough relationship trust equity can Allison begin to develop a mentoring relationship with Barbara.

Yet, while it is incredibly important to develop a mentoring relationship, it is equally important to make sure that you have the proper mindset in order to receive and process the advice, criticism, or encouragement you receive from your mentor.

Trust And Rely On Your Mentor

The most important thing you can do in receiving mentorship is set your ego outside the door. When you want help or advice from your mentor, the first thing you need to do is empty your cup:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Receiving advice from a mentor can be confusing, or even hurtful, at first. But this is part of them breaking you down. They likely have perspective and experience dealing with situations that you can’t appreciate or understand because you are new and inexperienced.

Yet, if you’ve gone through the above process, found a someone you admire, built a real relationship with them, and have built relationship trust equity to the point where you can begin to have mentor-protege interactions with them – then you also need to trust their assessment and advice. You might not understand it immediately, but you should take the time to dwell on it at length and examine their advice from multiple perspectives.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to heed their advice, but it should impact any decision or steps you make. A mentor can act as a neutral third party that can provide you dispassionate advice. When they give you information or tell you to start over again, they’re doing so because – while it might not be the easy thing for you to do – it is the avenue that will most likely result in professional/personal change and advancement in your career.

Again, a mentor’s true purpose is to cultivate growth in their proteges.

There Can (Not) Be Only One

Just as mentors usually have multiple proteges, you will need more than one mentor in your life. What you really want is an “advisory group” of mentors.

Three to five people with experience who can provide insight into your career. This will allow you to receive multiple perspectives on an issue if needed. It also helps prevent you from “burning out” one mentor. Instead, you can cycle through mentors looking for advice as needed and not be overly bothersome to any one person.

Finding mentors is a difficult process. This primer only barely scratches the surface of what is involved in finding one. Moreover, all mentoring relationships are unique. You can’t approach one like you would another. You have to navigate the personal and professional bounds of your relationship with mentors in a very active way. You can’t rest on your laurels and hope to fall into routine patterns of behavior with them. If they’re really your mentor, they won’t stand for it.

So as I said a couple of years ago, when you are looking for guidance, when you are looking for help in developing who you are as a professional, as a person – don’t seek out those who only praise you. Seek out those that will grind you down and reveal the edge inside of you.

Take the time to find mentors who will push you to grow and change. Anything else isn’t worth your time.

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