The power of mentoring


Gretchen Stroud

The power of mentoring

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Mentored workers feel more satisfied with and more committed to their careers, and a mentor may be a catalyst for a dramatic career change or a gentle nudge to move forward. Gretchen Stroud of Gilead Sciences explores the benefits.

Influenced by the TV drama “LA Law”, many years ago I started my practice as a litigator, excited about the opportunity to draft briefs and make persuasive arguments. After a few years of discovery, depositions, motions to compel and starting a family, it was clear that my interests and priorities had changed, and a change in my career path should follow.

Thanks to many conversations with a more experienced attorney, I shifted the focus of my practice to trademarks, generally a more collegial practice, helping clients who are excited about launching new products and the related brands. Career conversations with someone who was interested in me resulted in the redirection of my career path to something more closely suited to my talents and needs.

Although the word “mentor” was not as commonly heard then, that’s exactly what I found. Generally, a mentor is an experienced and knowledgeable person who has a long-term relationship with a protégé, focusing on deep and consequential career questions for the more junior employee.

A mentor may be a catalyst for a dramatic career change or a gentle nudge to move forward. She may help you to think through whether your future lies with a new practice area, changing from a law firm to an in-house position or even moving beyond a legal career.

A study synthesising research on the benefits of mentorship concluded that workers with mentors were more highly compensated and received a greater number of promotions than non-mentored workers.

Mentored workers felt both more satisfied with and more committed to their careers. For women, researchers found that mentors helped provide a feeling of belonging and confidence that the mentored workers had the ability to overcome challenges despite real feelings of stress and uncertainty.

The most obvious category of prospective mentors are people with whom you're currently interacting and working with and you want to emulate. If you have demonstrated your potential to an inspiring and experienced leader, that individual is likely to have positive feelings for you already, believe that you will put her input and feedback to use and thus be more apt to help you.

If you don’t have obvious candidates in your current network, expand your search. Let your friends and co-workers know that you are looking for a mentor and ask for their suggestions. The first big step in finding a mentor is deciding that you need a mentor, which will open you to conversations and opportunities.

Another possible option is a formal mentorship programme. Employers frequently sponsor mentorship programmes, partnering a junior employee with someone more experienced. Similarly, bar associations (either geographic or special interest, such as the Association of Corporate Counsel) or your university or law school alumni association may also offer similar programmes.

Typically, mentors volunteering for these programmes will have had some career success and have a willingness and commitment to guiding colleagues to reach their goals.

Potential pitfalls

However, formal programmes have potential pitfalls. Even when a programme administrator is careful in the mentor/mentee matching process, it’s impossible to ensure that teams of what are essentially strangers have meshing personalities or values.

And, while an employee mentorship programme will almost certainly provide useful information about how to negotiate the corporate environment successfully, it may be difficult to discuss a meaningful change in career and nearly impossible to raise the issue of leaving the employer.

If these situations occur, the mentorship relationship, while relatively short-lived, could at least be a positive expansion of your personal network.

In recent years, peer-to-peer groups have become a popular and effective way to provide career support for women. These kinds of groups have long played a significant role in providing women with advice and support for childrearing and caregiving, and women’s groups, such as those promoted by Sheryl Sandburg’s, provide the same peer mentoring for career growth.

Women participating in a circle, whether co-workers, classmates or neighbours, can voice their work-related ambitions and dreams, ask questions and mentor each other.

The mentoring relationship

Once you identify your mentor or mentors, it’s time to begin the relationship. You will need to agree on your goals and mission for the relationship, ​as well as the process and timing for meetings. Regardless of how frequently you meet with your mentor, significant introspection on your own about the issues you want to raise with your mentor and your discussions with her will likely be helpful.

In successful mentoring relationships, the mentor will ask many questions to learn what you are currently doing and what aspects of your job you enjoy. She will also need to understand your work history, values and family situation. A mentor’s questions ideally will help you recognise truths about your current path, why you have made your past career decisions, the impacts of those experiences and where you hope to be in the future.

A mentor’s main job is to listen to you, not to tell you what to do. If the mentor is more interested in reliving her early career than in hearing about your thoughts, the relationship is not as likely to be successful. While a mentor’s personal stories and experiences may be useful on occasion, too much focus on the mentor might guide you toward the mentor’s career path, rather than something more uniquely suited to you.

As with any personal relationship, the mentor and mentee should be honest with and respectful of each other. The mentor will use emotional intelligence to try to put herself in your shoes, and should be empathetic and accepting of your past. She must be able to provide you with candid—and sometimes tough—feedback, so that you are better armed to proceed toward your goal.

Finally, a mentor will encourage you as a person and on your individual career path, through setbacks and accomplishments. As you succeed in career transitions and reaching goals, the mentor should celebrate with you, since she will have played an important role in your career progress.

Gretchen Stroud is a senior associate general counsel, IP, at Gilead Sciences. She can be contacted at:

Gilead Sciences, mentoring, litigator, trademarks, brands, promotions, career support, gender equality, women's groups, corporate environment