Leadership in Mentoring: A Personal Reflection

“In gratitude, I offer personal reflections on the value of having great mentor-mentee relationships.”

Kaya Grace Porter

Associate

Littler Mendelson P.C.

Having a strong support system is priceless to reaching our individual destinies.  The recent experience of changing law firms helped me realize how blessed I am to have a circle of amazing mentor friends.  Before deciding to take steps to elevate my legal career, I learned the lesson that, while navigating life, you will always have the people whom you truly need around you.  You will not have to look far for the support that is necessary to propel you to the place you are meant to be.  In gratitude, I offer personal reflections on the value of having great mentor-mentee relationships.  The cherished friendships with those around me—people who supported me and cheered me on—highlight the most important aspects of productive mentor-mentee relationships.

How and When: The relationship must develop organically before the mentee needs professional development assistance or a favor.

When I went to “my people,” as I affectionately call them, they already knew they wanted to help me based on previously established mutual respect and enjoyment of each other.  With each mentor, a relationship was already in place, and it was not founded on one person’s immediate need for something from the other. Please do not get me wrong: it is totally fine to need and then ask for help (and I do think that we often fail to acknowledge and appreciate this fact within the legal profession specifically).  However, if needing help is the sole and pressing reason for seeking a mentor, that relationship may not create a sustained connection that ultimately produces the rich fruit that you might want it to.  

For example, I met one of my mentor friends on a service project with Habitat for Humanity.  I was incredibly unskilled at the simple task of painting interior walls and was therefore promptly removed from the paint team and reassigned to caulking­–the same task to which my future mentor was assigned.  Although we shared one of the least glamourous parts of a Habitat for Humanity build, working alongside each other for several hours on that fall Saturday five years ago allowed us to get to know each other.  My mentor initially welcomed me to the bar association—only later to ask me to chair one of its service committees. That opportunity not only gave me a high-profile leadership position in the necessary work of representation and inclusivity in the legal profession, but also a chance to support her.  While unaware on the day of the service project, I later realized that she was the incoming president of the entire bar association and that she, of course, would need service-minded spearheads in place to successfully accomplish her presidential agenda.  Looking back, this is also an example of how being willing (and unafraid) to help, serve, or lead others can yield unforeseen benefits in the future. 

Who and What: The mentor must know who you are as a person and guide you with this in mind.

Although at moments it was tough, my mentors consistently challenged me to ask the hard questions (both of myself and of law firms interested in hiring me), consider my answers, and then consider my career objectives. What would truly make me happy at this particular point in my career?  What were my motivations and reasons for moving, and how did each potential firm align or not align with my personal motivations and reasons?  They could genuinely say, “well I know this about you, Kaya, so given X, what about Y?” If a mentor has no idea about or respect for who you are as a person or what is important to you, how effective can their advice or counsel really be?  The mentor guides you to the best decision for you and gives you plenty of space to think for yourself.  This is key because, particularly for young adults, a temptation exists to just get the answer or have someone tell you what to do, which path to take, whether to go right or left, or whether to jump ship or stay aboard.  I am so glad my mentors never influenced me for personal gain and only helped me make the best choice for me.  They are excellent counselors (and steered away from “you should do…” and “if I were you, I would…”).  This guidance allowed me to be so excited when I recently began with a new firm. I was confident that I had made a great and reasoned decision for myself.

Key Consideration: A great mentor shares his or her time.

While the specific constraints on our time vary, I sincerely believe that no person’s time is actually more or less valuable than another’s.  We all have the same 24 hours in a day; we all have limited time available.  We cannot know how long our life is going to last, and time is a resource we cannot get more of.  Even with the best intentions, some folks will fall short of being a great mentor because they will not share the time it takes to truly follow all the way through.  

Here is where I “drop a footnote” to say that it is very important to try to be the kind of mentee who folks want to share their time with.  A mentee’s humility, respect, and flexibility make it easier on a mentor and will go a long way.  For instance, if your mentor is a working mom of young children, the best time to talk with her may be early in the morning after school drop-off or very late at night after she has put her kids to bed.  While these times could interfere with leisurely scrolling through “Insta” over coffee or nostalgic binge-watching on Disney+, willingness to accommodate your mentor is important.  It is also to a mentee’s advantage to feel confident that his or her mentor really wants to help and is invested in the mentee’s success, because this will likely allow the mentee to be more transparent and vulnerable with respect to what the mentee needs help with.  So again, make your mentor want to mentor you and do not ever fail to respect any person’s time.

In Specific Gratitude: Great mentors deserve our praise.

Most mentors expect nothing back from their mentees other than the satisfaction of seeing those mentees thrive happily.  This selflessness is laudatory.  Having said that, the mentee who goes the extra mile has a friend for life and a more genuine relationship with his or her mentor.

I am so grateful to my personal mentors for taking an interest in me, listening, listening again, leveraging their networks, challenging me, “keeping it 100,” being consistent, and being true friends.  Never for a second did I feel like they were not excited for me and willing to help me–literally step by step, from start to finish.  I feel incredibly lucky to have made friends years ago, each in a situation in which I was not actually seeking a mentor.  I am truly grateful!  

This goes back to developing authentic relationships.  When meeting new people, the last thing that should be on your mind is “how can this person help me in the future?”  Instead, think about whether you like this person and whether this person also seems to take a liking to you.  What commonalities do you share? Have you made a genuine connection, or do you have a mutual interest in something?  How/when can you connect and learn more about and from each other in the future?  These are the things that will signal a honest bond between you and another person and ultimately make that person more inclined to help you in the future when it really matters.  These types of relationships tend to be organic and natural.  They do not feel forced.  Very likely when you least expect it, life will create an opportunity for you as a mentee to benefit, elevate, or grow or, if you are a mentor, an opportunity for you to be enriched seeing someone else set, earn, and reach goals.

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