How to Get the Most out of Mentoring

The joys and importance of organization confidantes

Editorial Note: This editorial commentary was adapted for trial court leaders from an article appearing in the Economist News Magazine.

Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings”, Yoda in “Star Wars” or M in Ian Fleming’s early James Bond novels all act as mentors, providing sage advice and guidance to the less worldly-wise. In real life, as in fiction, the value of imparting wisdom gained through experience and age (Yoda is 900 years old, Gandalf is in his 1,000s) is becoming ever more important. It is in a court’s interest to keep its judges and staff happy and motivated. Supportive mentoring by court leaders can certainly serve this purpose.

Workplace mentoring has long been an informal affair, disguised as a chat by the coffee machine or a trip to a bar with a longer-serving and more senior colleague. Even the most successful find having a receptive ear a useful addition to the organization armory. For over 30 years Bill Gates has turned to another billionaire, Warren Buffett, for advice. Mark Zuckerberg, another tech baron, credits Steve Jobs, an American business magnet, inventor, and digital pioneer as one of his greatest inspirations.

In recent years many organizations, including trial courts, have sought to formalize mentoring arrangements with the obvious rewards of nurturing a sense of connection and devotion, and thereby helping in the transfer and development of leadership skills. The aim is to support others who are up- and-coming jurists and managers, who have a leadership bent, in boosting their confidence by sharing knowledge and experience. These relationships are at their best when there is genuine rapport between mentor and mentee. Such arrangements can help budding leaders come up with new ideas, hone their leadership abilities, and more clearly identify needed areas of development.

So how do courts build the best mentoring approaches? For them to work, some degree of chemistry is essential, as is a high regard for the person whose advice is being sought, irrespective of age gaps and backgrounds. One epic example is a trio of mentors: Socrates mentoring Plato and Plato, in turn, mentoring Aristotle, showing us the power of mentoring relationships dating as far back as 400 BC. And demonstrating as well, how the student can become a teacher.

Mentoring seems to work best when the approach is self-managed with the junior party taking the lead in arranging discussions which are always confidential. It is best to let mentees choose the person with whom they would most like to discuss their career trajectory, no matter their position on the organizational ladder. Requested mentors can be flattered but still decline.

If you want to become a valued mentor, do not start by offering unsolicited advice. If you’re being mentored, do not look for solutions to personal problems (i.e.; failing romantic relationships, etc.). But anything else work-related should be open for discussion. “I’m feeling unsure, this is all too much to take in” is as legitimate as chatting about your long-term career prospects.

Organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of face time with helpful colleagues. Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University, using data from hundreds of organizations since the onset of the pandemic, found that the mentoring of recent hires was a key reason to bring employees into the workplace two or three days a week. David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has echoed this in his push for a full return to the office.

Despite Goldman’s efforts, working from home has become a post-pandemic fixture. So virtual mentoring also still has a role. As with any online relationship, trust and rapport take longer to build. No matter how clearly boundaries are set, there are inevitable glimpses of personal spaces when sessions take place on Zoom with cameras on. What seems natural when meeting face-to-face does not always translate well online.

Reverse mentoring is also in fashion. Matching a junior employee with an executive whose understanding of diversity and other generational divides may need a refresher course could have benefits. There is room to debate how much a seasoned judge or administrator will learn from a millennial, but the best mentoring relationships are always a two-way street.

Whether it is lunch, drinks or a chat after a meeting, mentoring’s benefits are undeniable if it fosters a more positive culture, staff retention and development of talented colleagues. Think of Yoda’s serene demeanor and galactic wisdom rather than his enigmatic speech patterns. The idea is to find, if not a Jedi master, then at least someone to talk to whenever you feel stuck in your job. Sometimes sharing a coffee can be just as powerful as wielding a lightsaber.