Finding a Mentor in the Workplace
Melinda Wieder, Director of the Reciprocal Mentoring Lab
All my professional life I’ve heard “find a mentor if you want to advance in your career”. Yet, there was little to no instruction on what that mentorship should look like. Was I supposed to try and connect with the most senior person in the office? Was I supposed to find someone who I thought was the most influential? And even if I did get a chance to talk with them, what would I say? I learned quickly that the mantra to ‘find a mentor’ was not that simple.
That was, until I met Judy Heit, JD.
I started as an intern at a local law office while still in law school. Unsure of how to act, unsure of what role office politics played, and unsure of my role in general—I started there confident in who I was as a person, but not sure how to navigate my position or excel in my role. The first time I saw Judy I remember thinking: now there is a kind and intelligent woman. I’d guessed she was in her early 50’s, she had short hair, an easy smile, and a really fashionable outfit. I learned quickly that she was known for compassion and leadership to a level on par with her fashion sense.
In the process we fostered a mentorship and friendship that would change the trajectory of my professional and personal life.
As an intern, I wasn’t sure what to expect during my time there, but during those first few weeks it was Judy who would swing by my cubicle to ask how I was. It was Judy who made me feel welcome and encouraged me to ask her any and all questions. I quickly took her up on this offer, going into her office many times a day for quick questions. In the process we fostered a mentorship and friendship that would change the trajectory of my professional and personal life. While she mentored me on various aspects of the law, she was also helping me feel confident in my own decision making and ethical compass as a lawyer and individual.
My First Lesson – Care About the Whole Person
I learned my first lesson in what a good mentor does – they care not only about the quality of the work, but also about the quality of their mentee’s life.
I continued to work alongside Judy and others at the office as I finished law school. When I graduated and passed the Bar, somehow fate (or as I see it, God) would have it, an opening for a lawyer position opened on Judy’s team. I applied and gladly accepted a role as a new attorney.
On my first day, walking into the office as a licensed attorney with a whole new set of responsibilities and tasks before me—it was again Judy who became my guide. Judy showed me how to make the tough phone calls so that I could make them in the future. She shared examples of her work so I could model those to my style and practice. I learned by paying attention to the questions she asked. She exemplified her faith in me by encouraging and welcoming my questions and then asking probing questions in return.
She continued to be a wonderful listener, providing ample suggestions without force, leaving the decisions up to me, and allowing me to find my own voice as a professional.
My Second Lesson – Empower the Mentee
This was my second lesson in what a good mentor does: with a faith in your ability and judgment, they listen well and provide just enough input to allow you to make a decision for yourself. In this way, I was able to grow my own abilities while also gaining confidence in my judgment. This has made me not only a better attorney, but a better person as well.
As the years passed, I began to truly appreciate the depth of gratitude I had for Judy and her guidance. In the midst of talking about strategy, civil law and problem solving, we also discussed our personal interests, faith, and the importance of asking ourselves the big questions in life. I also found that it wasn’t only I who was benefitting from this mentorship. Amidst my questions to her, I was able to be a part of her growth and learning as well. I provided insight into office dynamics she may have missed and shard perspectives that developed her own point of view. In this way, I know she benefited from the mentorship just as I did.
My Third Lesson – Mentorships Are Reciprocal
And so, I came to learn the most important lesson of a good mentorship – that they are not one-way streets; they are reciprocal. Both people bring experience, qualities and talents to the relationship that provide value to the other.
Years have passed, Judy has retired and I now hold the supervisor position she held when I first started. We get lunch now and then and I regularly hear her voice and guidance in my head. Now in the mentor role myself, I can see the tangible impact she has had on my life as I mentor those around me. She taught me that no one is perfect, in their careers or in life, but perfection is not the point. Succeeding in any profession, when done well, includes a certain level of self-awareness of what is most important. She helped inform my vision of what a healthy work-life balance could look like. When she was going through a tough time, I was able to reflect that lesson back to her. In reminding her of my faith in her, she regained the perspective needed that she was missing.
Ensure that they see mentorship as a reciprocal process where both parties will benefit and learn.
So wherever you are in your professional life, when looking for a great mentor, find the people who respect you as a person and really listen to you. The leaders that will share their professional toolkit while encouraging you to develop your own. Finally, ensure that they see mentorship as a reciprocal process where both parties will benefit and learn.
I am deeply grateful for the mentorship we’ve shared and for her innate knowledge that the best mentorships are reciprocal in nature. Now when I hear someone say “find a mentor,” I know that what they really mean is, “Find a Judy”.
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