In Praise of Mentor Month

You may have heard that it’s National Mentoring Month. In fact, January 15 was actually “Thank Your Mentor Day.” Both occasions give us a good reason to muse on the merits of mentoring, which is something we take seriously at Jackson Spalding. Our culture depends on it.

When we started the firm almost 20 years ago, we eliminated job titles. We wanted to dissuade divas and tout teamwork, and we hoped this decision would support that goal. (It worked, by the way.) But, with a flat structure we still needed to cultivate excellence, advance our clients and careers, and promote an entrepreneurial environment. We decided that everyone needed a mentor – someone who was not a direct supervisor – to serve as a career and culture coach. As the years advanced, we’ve continued to refine the program so that mentors transition every few years and sprinkle their particular genius throughout our ecosystem. And, we’ve recently started mentor small groups to intentionally sharpen our collective mentoring skills.

It surprises me that more companies don’t have a system like ours. We celebrate the concept of mentoring in other areas of life, right? Think about how many times you’ve heard heart-warming stories of athletic coaches who have transformed the lives of their players. The history books are brimming with mentor matches, too. Remember Socrates and Plato? Emerson and Thoreau? And, it’s easy to find mentors in the movies: Starwars (Yoda); Top Gun (Stinger); Grand Torino (Walt Kowalski); Batman (Alfred); The Untouchables (Jim Malone); Shawshank Redemption (Andy DuFresne); Harry Potter (Dumbledore) and more.

I’m sure you can recall a teacher or coach who had a positive impact on your life. They are mentors of a sort, but imparting knowledge is part of their job description. It’s really special when someone voluntarily takes you under their wing to help you succeed. I’ve been lucky over the years to have many “ghost mentors” who served this role – perhaps without even knowing it.

So what makes for a quality mentor? Here are a few ideas:

  • Ability and willingness to share what you know as well as who you know. You must adopt a generous spirit.
  • Availability to listen and provide advice on a regular basis. This works best if you establish goals with your mentee and commit to regular dates to evaluate progress.
  • Accountability that has you serving as a role model while holding your mentee to pre-established goals. “Do as I say, not as I do” is counterproductive.
  • Objectivity that allows you to offer perspectives beyond just cheerleading for your mentee. Part of the role is to help your mentee see things they may not be able to see on their own and to encourage them to take on new challenges.
  • Honesty to deliver tough love when required.
  • Authenticity and compassion, which may require sharing your own past mistakes and lessons learned.
  • Advocacy, which involves sticking your neck out on occasion to help your mentee advance.

So, here’s my challenge as we start a new year: Be a mentor. Find a Mentor. Thank a Mentor. As I reflect on my career, there have been many unsung heroes who have poured their wisdom into me by either nurturing a skill I didn’t know I needed or by helping me navigate terrain I hadn’t trod before. Ten come to mind easily, but I’m sure there are more. Thank you Mike Riggall, Mike Wilson, Dave Kaplan, Candice Gulden, Kyle Young, Joe Ledlie, Bo Spalding, Glen Jackson, Calvin Edwards and Ken Wales. I’m doing my best to pay it forward!