Mentoring that works

Magazine: FLUX; Client: CJBS / LexisNexis

Turning a statement of intent into one of action

“I was really keen to be mentored when I heard my firm offered mentoring, but I still haven’t been matched with anyone a year later.” Sound familiar? What about this one? “Our firm claims to offer everyone mentoring, but really it’s a coaching scheme.” The legal sector is no stranger to mentoring, with wide recognition that it can impact on diversity, yet such comments remain prevalent. So how can you make sure that your mentoring programme actually works?

A sense of purpose for mentee – and mentor

The first ingredient of a good scheme, according to Susannah Macknay, diversity and inclusion partner at Slaughter and May, is having a clear purpose. Next up, a great scheme needs clarity around the mentor’s role. “For us, it’s all about helping the mentee manage their own career path and development,” says Macknay. Finally, there needs to be buy-in at board level. “Our board is committed to mentoring as part of our wider diversity and inclusion strategy,” she says.

“Even though we have several strands to our mentoring programme – bringing together people from different departments, focusing on women who have access to external mentors, another for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) staff, and a pilot for black and minority ethnic (BME) staff – everyone in the firm is absolutely clear that the overriding aim is career development,” says Macknay. “Knowing what to expect from it gives the mentoring relationship focus, as well as making outcomes more measurable.”

Back in the 1990s, you got a lot more on-the job training, which was important for people like me in our formative years. I see little evidence of that nowadays and I think mentoring helps to fill that gap.

Enabling formal and informal mentoring

For Slaughter and May associates and business services staff – all of whom have access to mentoring – a particularly popular aspect of the scheme is that mentees can request the type of mentor they have. “So people might request a mentor who is male, LGBT, BME or someone who didn’t train at the firm.”

Like many programmes, Slaughter and May’s grew out of informal mentoring that had grown organically. But while Macknay favours their new more formal approach, others, such as Sue Shale, partner and CFO at Farrer & Co, thinks there is room for both. “I am mentoring five people at the moment, but only two are via the formal scheme. With the informal ones, I still think the training is important as it helps structure something that could otherwise be an amorphous lump. But the casualness – which means it isn’t measured and questioned – works better for some people, and anything more formal could even put them off.” Indeed, it doesn’t feel like an effort to mentor, Shale says. “I really enjoy it and I think the mentor has to feel that way for the relationship to work. I certainly don’t think they should be paid. If it’s a burden and you feel you should be remunerated, you shouldn’t be doing it. Simple as that.”

And in her experience, to work, the discussions need to be really candid and open. “If it’s not relationship oriented and is just about specific work issues, it becomes coaching. That doesn’t mean people can’t come along with an agenda, such as an upcoming mid-term review, but it has to be in a wider context.”

Analysing barriers is key content

Philip Goodstone, UK&I head of law at EY, believes there’s never been more need for mentoring. “Back in the 1990s, the market was a very different place for firms and for lawyers. At that time you got a lot more on-the-job training from senior lawyers, which was so important for people like me in our formative years. The level of commitment to training and development from partners – who would invest in you for the long term, help you with your work, take you to meetings and generally help a young lawyer shape his or her career – was just far greater. I see much less evidence of that nowadays and I think mentoring helps fill that gap.”

Goodstone agrees that the most important components of mentoring are clear objectives and measurable outputs. “After all, if at the end of the programme you haven’t made the shift you intended, it’s important to turn to something else.” He also thinks the devil is in the detail.

“I think for mentoring to really work, there has to be lots of, ‘Let’s pause here – what is it that you want to achieve and what is stopping you from achieving it?’ And that it must be the mentee, rather than the mentor, who leads the discussion, so that any barriers, whether real or perceived, can then be worked through.” He also agrees that mentoring seems to mean different things to different people. “So it is important that both parties truly understand it before embarking on it,” he says.

Personal chemistry can’t be ignored

Macknay sees no reason why mentoring shouldn’t be widely available. “We want to encourage a mentoring culture. That’s not to say we’d either impose mentoring or a particular match, because you have to want it and a lot of it comes down to personal chemistry. In fact, mentees must feel that if the chemistry doesn’t work, it’s fine to request another mentor.” Nobody expects mentors to put in masses of overtime, says Macknay. “Mentors here tend to have no more than three mentees. Mentoring meetings typically take one to two hours, and we recommend meetings every four to six weeks. Some people schedule meetings around important milestones – for example, before a performance appraisal.”

Building a meaningful and effective relationship

Individuals tell Slaughter and May that they can’t always talk to their friends (because they don’t usually understand the nuances of the profession) or someone who directly manages them (as the conversation often shifts to day-to-day matters rather than career development), whereas an impartial mentor can be more honest, explains Macknay.

“The kinds of questions we might ask a junior associate might be ‘What do you want out of this relationship?’ to which they might answer ‘How do I approach X piece of work? How do I ask for certain kinds of work without seeming to be pushy? If I have a workplace issue, what’s the best way to solve it?’ Then we’ll assess how they feel as the relationship goes on and gather feedback from both parties at the end so that the firm can see what has shifted during the relationship. People nearly always tell us it’s useful to have a sounding board, as well as having strategic discussions around certain issues.”

Slaughter and May is also hot on tracking the career paths of mentees. Macknay says: “It’s early days, but we’re keen to spot trends and try and understand what happens to people’s careers when they have had mentoring.”