How to be like Luke and Yoda

On many occasions, people have told me about mentoring relationships gone wrong, and because of that, they did not think mentoring was beneficial. For example, Sam said to me that his mentor never reached out to me in his company-matched program. When I explained that the mentee owns the relationship, his eyes widen and said no one ever told me. Sam is not alone; countless others I know have not taken steps to have a beneficial mentoring relationship.

When mentoring goes right, you have a relationship like Luke Skywalker and Yoda. Yoda understands that Luke cannot meet his full potential without guidance. Yoda supports Luke and gives him honest feedback and information. Yoda challenges Luke to do the work necessary to get to that next level. Yoda believes and states: "Always pass on what you have learned."

By the way, you are never too senior to have a mentoring relationship - it is all about learning and growing, and that should go on forever.

Below are my steps to have a great mentoring relationship.

What's the goal?

The first step in establishing any mentoring relationship is asking yourself what you need a mentor for? The answer cannot be because everyone told me that a mentoring relationship is the key to success. You have to look deep in yourself (and perhaps ask others) and understand what you could gain from one or more mentoring relationships. Some mentees have told me that they don't know why they need one. If you cannot articulate what you need help with other than being delusional (because everyone needs help with something) - it is hard to help you. Friends of mine who are rainmakers and EVPs at companies all have mentors because they are committed to growth. So the question is, where do you need to develop?

  • Are you looking to learn more about a business or an industry?
  • Are you trying to learn a technical skill?
  • Are you try to develop soft skills such as enhancing and flexing communication skills, executive presence, or managerial skills?

Write down all of the items you want to get out of this relationship. Doing this will help you identify potential mentors -- as well as topics for discussions.

Right person

Once you know the areas, you want to focus on. Think about the people who can help you develop. Who are the people in your network that are excellent at the skills you want to enhance and are good coaches? Someone can be the best appellate arguer in the world, but if they are selfish and obnoxious, that is not the right mentor.

And be open about who your mentor should be and listen to recommendations. Luke at first doubts Yoda's ability to teach him and underestimates him. If Luke had been brilliant, he would have looked at how successful Yoda's other mentees had been. Minus, of course, the one that went to the Dark Side.

Now you need to be realistic; Stacy Abrams would probably help me with presentation skills and be more engaged with my team. But chances are she may not have room on her plate for me. Looking at your list of potential mentors, think about their availability and how much time the mentoring will take (is this a long-term mentoring relationship or spot mentoring?).

Your list of possible mentors should be both inside and outside your organization. In a perfect world, you want mentors both inside and outside your firm. The internal mentor may be able to help you with your skills in the context of corporate culture and aid you in navigating politics. The external mentor may give you advice without the lens of politics and maybe more open to discussing possibilities outside of the firm and exposure to outside thought leadership. You may also be more comfortable discussing specific people and personalities with someone outside of the firm.

What if no one you know has everything you are looking for in a mentor? First, you may need multiple mentors, so you may need to break the topics down. If that does not work, talk to your network, and if you are comfortable with your manager about who could be a great mentor. Remember it was Obi-Wan who sent Luke to Yoda.

My network has helped me find spot mentors on different topics, such as business issues and industry views. My best manager helped me find a perfect mentor (who turned into a dear friend) when I discussed what I was looking to develop. I also asked that same manager what skills she thought I should develop.

Once you have determined the right people to be as mentors, reach out to them and ask. Be very specific as to what you are looking for from them in terms of time and skills. Is it a spot mentoring? Is it long-term? What are the topics you would like to discuss with them? You may think that John would be great to mentor you on an issue, but they might disagree.

Types of Mentoring Relationships

There are different types of mentoring relationships, and depending on the circumstances, one may be more appropriate than the others. Understand what you are looking for and be very specific when asking.

The most wonderful ones are organic relationships -- where you and another person hit it off, and they take the time to talk to you about an issue, or you learn and soak it in by observing them. In many of these organic relationships -- no one ever utters the word mentor, which is okay. A duck is a duck -- even if you never call it that.  

Many companies, departments, and organizations run mentoring programs where your organization matches you with someone. The benefits of this are that you do not have to seek anyone out and may be introduced to someone you don't know. So at the very least, you have expanded your network. The downside of these relationships -- they may not feel as natural or safe as growing organically. So sometimes you don't get the benefits you were seeking. Despite the possible downsides, I say jump in. I know several junior people who established strong relationships with senior executives through these programs, and that possibility, along with an expanded network, makes it worth it.

Spot mentoring is when you are not looking for a long-term relationship but are just looking for someone to provide short-term mentoring on a topic. When junior attorneys express interest in learning more about going to the business or how business people set strategy, I reach out to my network and have them meet with someone one or two times on the topic.

I also met with many outside counsel considering a move inside to discuss the things that may surprise them if they make a move. These are short-term advice sessions focused on a specific topic or two. The benefit of a short time commitment and a particular topic, you may be more likely to get a yes, and again - you have expanded your network or deepened a relationship.

The Relationship

In mentoring, there is:

"Do or do not. There is no try." – Yoda.

The mentee owns the relationship. Don't expect the mentor to schedule appointments and topics. It would be best if you discussed the ground rules for the mentoring. How often and how long will you meet?

By the way, it is okay to have a relationship that is sporadic depending on issues. I have some mentoring relationships that started regularly but over the years have evolved into an as-needed basis. But what you don't want to do is say I want to meet every month, and then two months into you start booking weekly sessions.

You also want to discuss confidentiality, and that is a two-way street. The mentor can help you understand an organization's politics and may not want you discussing it in the cafeteria or anywhere else. The mentor may have other ground rules - so be prepared.

It is also okay for the relationships to be telephonic -- but you can't multitask -- you need to focus. For each meeting, you should come prepared to discuss the topics or situations you want to discuss. Be as specific as you can on the issue. What you have tried already and how that worked out, and why. In later sessions, you should discuss if the advice or game plan you devised is working, and if not, why not.

Be open that the mentor may ask you for advice and counsel. She may want to understand how a situation is perceived or how a message she may give her team would be perceived.

Ending the Relationship

Not all mentoring relationships turn out to be the ones we dreamed of; even when you question the pairing, you may get something out of it. Don't assume that just because you are very different people, you cannot benefit from them. I have benefited greatly from people who were very different from me. They opened me up to approached things from a different angle and diverse perspectives. These relationships made me a better manager.

Others I have had we did not gel, or to be honest, the person did not follow up and schedule meetings, and I was not doing it. But in all of these, I would have appreciated it if the mentee had been upfront, ended the relationship, and thanked me. So the bottom line is, to be honest, whether good or bad, about be grateful-- even if it was not ideal- the person did not have to give you their time.

Remember, when your career is in a dark place, a little more knowledge lights our way. Mentoring can be that light if you take control of and invest in that relationship.

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Sheila Murphy

Founder of Focus Forward Consulting

For over 20 years, as a former senior legal officer for a Fortune 50 company, I successfully developed, coached and transformed talent in corporations and law firms, as well as...