Mentoring: climb together

Over my career I have picked up numerous mentees ­ either by participating in
schemes run by the firm or purely by chance ­ usually some random individual I
come across who thinks they might benefit from my ‘wisdom’.

It takes an inordinate amount of time ­ and usually happens at the most
inconvenient times. Your mentee never has a crisis just at the point when you
finished your last engagement, before you embarked on the next proposal and
while your own job list has nothing of much note in the urgent or important
boxes. How often have I picked up the phone only to hear the voice of my latest
mentee and think ‘Not now. Please not now!’

Win-win situation

So why do I do it? I have thought long and hard about this. There must be
reasons why I keep volunteering for every scheme and picking up the odd waif and
stray along the way. I must be getting something from this. It can’t be pure
altruism ­ and anyway I often doubt how much benefit it is to the other party.
Let me share my reasons with you.

Whatever stage you get to on the career ladder, the challenges do not change.
There will always be people in positions of power and influence who want to
direct you, there will always be colleagues failing to deliver what you want,
there will always be things you haven’t done before and a task list that you
will never be able to complete.

These challenges are the things that your mentee brings to you for you to
help resolve. Of course, the reality is that you can’t resolve any of them for
another person. You can’t be assertive for another person. You can’t set another
person’s priorities for them. You can’t be courageous for another person.

Equally you can’t probe another’s priorities without thinking about your own.
You can’t encourage another to assert themselves without mentally resolving to
do so yourself and whatever fear of failure I might have, it is at its most weak
as I explain to my friend that if he takes the first step his own fears will go
away. So in addressing the challenges of another I also address my own.

Mentees inspire

Every individual I act as a mentor to is inspirational. I have picked mentees
up by chance ­ someone who asks for a chat, which becomes a regular chat. I have
been allocated mentees according to some form of professional profiling that
says we will be compatible.

I have had things in common with my mentees and I have had nothing in common
with them. Whatever the scenario, I cannot think of one of them who has not, in
their own way, been inspirational. I have sat with them as they face their major
career decisions, preparing for interviews, in the aftermath of rejection and as
they face up to the sometimes painful truth that occasionally one must bend to
the world when the world won’t bend.

Every time they resolve to take positive action to move forward and every
time they choose not to let the circumstances dictate how they will view
themselves or their situation, they inspire me.

Learning curve

There is nothing about being good at what I do that I don’t already know. I
have all the keys to success available to me. I have a wealth of contacts and
many strong relationships. I know a lot of useful information and know where to
go to get information I need that I don’t know. I have a lot of experience and a
good, creative imagination. I have drive and stamina. If I make mistakes it is
almost inevitable that they are mistakes I have made before.

When I meet with one of my mentees I hear them make good resolutions and I
know that they have made those good resolutions before just as I have. I learn
that, like them, when I do not do what I know I should do I must pick myself up
and try again. The only lessons I don’t need to learn are those I have mastered.
Mentoring takes up a lot of time ­ and never at the most convenient time ­ but I
look at it from a purely selfish point of view.

I am delighted that my mentees continually tell me they benefit from that
chat over coffee but I know that I walk away from that chat with the most
valuable lesson of them all ­ to practice what I preach.

Listen to mentees and learn

Let me offer the example of ‘George’, a fantastic individual, whom I have
mentored for over ten years. Since I first began mentoring him, I have watched
him progress from a young student trainee to director of the firm.

George is massively talented, driven and capable. Everybody loves him and he
fits in well with many teams.

Once every few months or so we go for a coffee. The conversation is always
the same. George isn’t sure whether he has the support of his superiors, feels
he is working too hard and that his contribution is not recognised. He has a
number of opportunities but is struggling to decide what to do.

My response varies. Often I just listen. Sometimes I say what I would do and
sometimes I suggest things he could do. Sometimes I offer to intervene. Always I
remind him of his value, his worth, his abilities, his strengths.

As I walk away from our meetings and mull over our conversation I put my own
doubts over the support I have from my superiors to one side and remember, as I
told George, that they are not ignoring me but trusting me.

I remember that I work long hours and push myself because of what I want to
achieve and because of how committed I am to good service and quality work. I
remember that I can be totally satisfied with my own sense of self-worth without
worrying about external recognition of my contribution.

I walk away profoundly grateful to George for the help mentoring him has
given me.

Vincent Neate is a partner at

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