Mentoring: A Practical Way to Pay It Forward


Mentoring: A Practical Way to Pay It Forward

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By Jocelyn Anderson


Recognize those who supported you by supporting your junior colleagues

When you look back at your first few years of working as a Secretary, do you recall the times when you felt that you had really learned something? Those times when you mastered a skill or dealt with a person in a way that spelled out to you (and often to others, as well) that you were making progress and becoming more professional? Think back to how you acquired that crucial knowledge. Was it something that you learned by being taught in a traditional way – or did you acquire it by getting advice from one of your colleagues?

Most Secretaries can look back to someone in the office – maybe someone at the same grade as themselves but more experienced, or someone at a higher grade but willing to pass on knowledge – who was a crucial part of their professional development. Nowadays that relationship is often spoken of formally as a “mentoring” relationship, but how it’s labelled matters less than how it works for the two people involved in it.

Could you now fill that advisory and assisting role for someone in the office who is junior to you?

A mentoring relationship is, at its broadest, a relationship in which a person with more knowledge and/or experience (it doesn’t have to be both; it can be one or the other) gives informal advice and support to a person without that knowledge and/or experience. In some ways it is easier to define mentoring according to what it isn’t. It isn’t a management relationship: the mentor is not a substitute boss. The point is to help the mentee when he or she needs it (even if the mentee doesn’t know that yet!) and not to reprimand the person for poor performance.

A mentor is not worried about performance targets or evaluation. This isn’t a relationship in which the mentor tells the mentee what to do; it’s about helping the mentee discover the best ways of doing things for themselves. Nor is it a straightforward teaching relationship: it’s less about demonstrating the right way to do a particular task than about explaining to the mentee why it’s important to do the task that way, and developing the mentee’s skills of approaching other difficult tasks independently but with the same attitude.

It’s about tact. Of course it can be frustrating watching someone make all the same mistakes that you made back in the day, but as a mentor you have to be able to resist leaping in right away and “showing them how to do it properly”.

Mentorship is also very much about personal trust: a mentee needs to know that the mentor is not going to divulge his or her worries and weaknesses to management without consent. This is especially true when the issue is people-related, as it often is with younger members of staff. A mentee’s self-confidence can be completely destroyed by the wrong word said to a line manager at the wrong time, and this is the polar opposite of what mentoring is about. Whatever the specific aims and goals of the mentee, the mentor’s aim should always be to make the mentee more confident in order to be good at his or her job and able to overcome setbacks and accentuate the positive.

The mentee also has to be willing and able to accept advice. Some people are extremely touchy about proffered advice and persist in seeing it as criticism. This may be something that a good mentor can help with, by showing that advice and criticism are not the same. That is in itself a very valuable lesson to learn at the start of a working life. But if the mentee just won’t take any advice or continues to misinterpret it, then mentoring is not going to help. Sometimes even the best mentors have to admit defeat!

The complicated dynamic between a mentor and a mentee makes this a relationship that’s difficult to impose from above. Many mentoring specialists say that the entire relationship has to be voluntary. If, for example, a mentee cannot trust a mentor or simply cannot get on with him or her, the relationship is probably not going to work, no matter what management decrees. For that reason, it’s often better if the mentor and the mentee find each other independently, away from any formal initiative from HR to “fix them up”. If you already fill a mentoring role for a member of staff without it being labelled as such, that role doesn’t need to be any more formalized than it presently is. More important than wearing a badge with “Mentor” on it is projecting to your colleague the feeling that he or she can come to you for advice with issues that arise.

It takes time, energy, patience and understanding to be a good mentor, and it’s not a role suited to everyone. You can get guidance on the qualities of a good mentor by looking at some Internet mentoring sites. You have to be able to put yourself back into your own shoes at the time when you were working as a Secretary or PA for only a few years, because that’s where your mentee is now. Sometimes it can be quite an eye-opener to recall how comparatively little you knew back then! Some tasks, particularly interpersonal issues and internal office rules, can seem like second nature to you now, but we should all be able to look back to the time when we bumped into awkward personalities or unwritten office rules and grazed our shins in the process – and to recall how a kind, tactful bit of advice helped us through.

By becoming a mentor, you are passing on the support shown to you by those more experienced colleagues who supported you in your first few years as a Secretary by explaining how things were done, without condescending or making you feel foolish. Those colleagues were mentors, whether or not they called themselves by that name. They made a real and valuable difference to your life, and now you have the opportunity to pay that forward to someone else. Make use of it if you can.

© Copyright 2016 Jocelyn Anderson.  Article appeared in The Legal Secretary Journal, a publication of The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs