Mentoring Can Be the Biggest Mistake of Your Career

J0178845No one goes through childhood saying, “When I grow up I want to be a mentor.” That’s like saying, “When I grow up, I want to be an actuary.” When given a chance, believe it or not, not everyone wants the awesome responsibility for someone else's career.

I first learned of Jamie Collins when she picked up the phone and told me I was going to be her mentor. She has a different version of the story but to me, that’s how it happened. I hadn’t a clue why I had been selected. In my mind, she was some kid in Indianapolis, a state I still can’t spell, with absolutely no credits other than a strong desire to “make good”.

I think she knew I was Editor-in-Chief of The OLP eJournal (Organization of Legal Professionals) providing online legal technology training for paralegals, attorneys and litigation support professionals and KNOW Magazine for Paralegals and but I don’t think she knew I founded and designed those nor that I had written 10 books. I think she read my blog and said, “Yeah, I choose her.”

It was intriguing. Here is someone you’re going to help launch a wildly successful career and who may ultimately end up being a competitor but something was appealing. Never, in all the time spent with her worrying, praising, getting angry, pulling hair, wondering when she’s going to “get it”, begging her to adopt her own style – did I regret the decision.

What I learned was it took a lot of real work. This was not a situation where two people used the mentor term in order to look good. You had to be right on point. I also solved the question: Are you a mentor or coach? What’s the difference?

The difference can make or break someone's career. In fact, if you mentor instead of coach, you might likely make or break your own career. It's an important decision. Wasting valuable time getting or giving the wrong type of advice can delay years traveling the right career path. That's how critical this decision can be.

A mentor is someone for guidance. They impart a little information here, a little information there……they are role models. They expect you to follow their lead. They give advice. A coach rolls up their sleeves well above the elbow, sticks their hands in your mess, pulls out the good, bad and downright oh-my-god-you-didn’t-really-say-that- did-you??? and teaches the how-to.

I was definitely a coach. I don’t care what Jamie tells you. Maybe she wanted to write a column or book or get interviewed in national publications but unless she learned how to construct a sentence without every cliche parked in the Ladies’ Guide to Cliches and Other Ordinary Writing Phrases, I swear, she didn’t stand a chance. I had one rule: no one under my tutelage was going to say she was my mentee and embarrass me.

Her first piece was a disaster. Like most beginners, she dashed it off thinking, “Wow, this is good writing.” It had possibilities but was a desperate attempt to fit in – gliding into the world of sounds-like-every-one-else-no-original-thinking-no-strong-opinions-at-the-fifth-grade-level. She came close to using “pink polka dots” but the recesses of my brain say that actually came from someone else. It did have a tiny little spark that said, “See what I can do.” She kept saying, “I can take it. Pile it on.” I was relentless. She took it. She was a boxer who refused to go down.

I was trained by a fellow who taught me the same way. Writing with him was torture. He was a former AP reporter and journalist for major papers who wrote books with well-known attorneys such as Gerry Spence. By the time I got out of a session, I was shaken up and in tears, the kind that dripped makeup down onto my white blouse and wouldn’t come out no matter how many times you washed the dang thing.

I was not mentoring. I was coaching.

Here is what I discovered: (I am semi-quoting from various sources):

Differentiator #1:
Mentoring is relationship oriented. The mentee shares issues affecting professional and personal success. Its focus includes work/life balance, self-confidence, self-perception and how personal issues influence professional.

Differentiator #2:
Coaching is short term. Coaches can be involved with a coachee (apparently, there is such a word) for a short time, perhaps a few sessions. Coaching lasts as long as needed. Mentoring is always long term, requires time to build trust and needs to create an environment so the mentee feels secure sharing real issues that impact success. Successful mentoring relationships can generally last nine months to a year.

Differentiator #3:
Coaching is performance driven. The purpose of coaching is to improve job performance involving enhancing or acquiring new skills. Once the coachee acquires the skills, the coach is not needed.

Mentoring is development driven. The purpose is to develop the mentee’s current and future jobs. This differentiates the immediate manager and mentor and reduces conflict between the employee's manager and mentor.

Differentiator #4:
Coaching is task oriented. The focus is on concrete issues such as managing effectively, speaking articulately, and learning strategic thinking. It requires a content coach to teach how to develop these skills.

Here’s what I learned the hard way to ask:

1. Find out why this person wants a mentor.
Do they really need a course or degree? They may need to enhance their learning but are afraid to take steps. If it seems they want you as a course, don’t take them on.

2. Are you willing to share your expertise, experience and knowledge?
Some people are not. You may be afraid this person ends up leaving you behind. Be secure in your skills, reputation, abilities, ability to learn new things and be unafraid to pass those things on. Mentors illustrate how the field is changing. If you are stagnant, you will not make a good mentor.

3. Are you respected in the field?
There’s nothing worse than for your mentee to tell colleagues you are their mentor and receive the response: “Oh”. This is no way to build an ego – yours or theirs.

4. Are you interested in mentoring or is it a chore?
The mentee will call or email and realize immediately they are a nuisance if you let the relationship deteriorate. Tackle responsibilities immediately. It’s a long-term relationship ending when it ends and not before. (Did I just use a nasty cliché?)

Jamie emerged as an outstanding professional writer. Her blog thrives. Sadly, she no longer needed a coach. How I got so lucky to have been chosen, I still don’t know. My guess is, the writing gods must have been looking down on me that day I received that phone call.

Chere Estrin is CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Legal Careers Rx. She has written 10 legal career books, has been an exec in a $5 billion corporation, CEO of a national legal staffing company, Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association and Paralegal Administrator in two major firms, and recipient of the Los Angeles Paralegal Assoc. Lifetime Achievement Award. She is President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals.  Chere has written 10 books about the paralegal career along with hundreds of articles and is a national seminar speaker. There’s a lot of other stuff but you can always see her LinkedIn profile and connect. Reach out at: