I remember many years ago, my father shared with me this quote often attributed to Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
For some reason, it resonated deeply with me and really influenced the way that I have viewed my professional interactions with others. As time has progressed, I have come to understand that Angelou’s words were so true.
Those I have connected with have forgotten my wins or what I did on a given day in response to a challenge. But time and time again, my colleagues tell me that they can recall with ease a kind word of encouragement when they needed it most.
An Early Start
I began mentoring others relatively early in my career; when I was an undergrad in college, I mentored high school students as they were planning their paths to college.
While I was in law school as a night student, working full-time, I shared my experiences with others who aspired to follow a similar path.
Looking back, I believe that I chose to mentor others and share my experiences because I wanted to give the advice, guidance, and encouragement to others that I always sought from my own mentors and that meant so much to me as I made my way.
I also felt the desire to pass on the knowledge and wisdom that had been shared with me, mainly so others would have an easier time, or perhaps be more intentional about, navigating the path to their own vision of success.
I’ve been practicing law for more than 18 years, and I can say that serving as a mentor to others has taught me things that are worth sharing with anyone who is looking to step into the role of a mentor, or who is already mentoring and is looking to further develop the skills to be a great mentor.
Tips for Helping Mentees
Here are three key tips that every mentor should consider to ensure that their mentees get the most out of the relationship.
First, when mentoring others, it is critical to have patience and to practice being a good listener. I believe that the most impactful mentors in my life were those who took the time to really listen to me, who were patient in assessing the path I was on or the obstacles I was facing, and then really listened to me as we discussed how I could achieve my goals.
I always approach mentoring others with the goal of being patient with the process and making sure that I am listening to my mentee. Mentoring is as much about listening and understanding as it is about coaching and advising.
It is important that the mentor focus on making sure that he/she/they understand the concerns and goals of the mentee before providing that advice and counsel. If a mentor is not patient and willing to listen and really hear their mentee, and is focused solely on providing advice, it is likely that the advice may not be as useful.
Second, a mentor must be willing to provide constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is not intended to be offensive, but rather it should encourage introspection and stimulate growth in the mentee. A mentor should not filter or soften feedback out of fear of offending the mentee. Instead, the mentor should focus on ways to provide constructive criticism with empathy.
One way that I have done this is by sharing my own experiences and failures and showing the mentee we are all capable of learning lessons by recognizing and contemplating our mistakes. If a mentor focuses on helping the mentee to grow by overcoming shortcomings or learning from mistakes, rather than simply dwelling on the problems, the mentor will likely help the mentee, rather than simply leaving the mentee feeling criticized and devalued.
Finally, it is so important for the mentor to allow the mentee to make his/her/their own decisions as they navigate their career path. It may be tempting for mentors, because of their experiences and perspectives, to simply tell mentees what to do. This is not ideal, however, and can really hinder the mentee’s ability to get comfortable in making these crucial decisions.
A mentor’s job is to assist the mentee and support the mentee, not to take over and make the decisions. One thing the mentor may be helping the mentee with is problem solving, and the mentor should recognize the long-term value to the mentee in helping to develop this valuable skill.
As a mentor, if your words are forgotten and your actions become less memorable over time, you will have still left an enduring impact if your mentees remember how you empowered them by listening to them, providing them with constructive criticism, and by encouraging them to take control of their careers and make the important decisions with your support and guidance.
Mentoring others can be a very rewarding part of your professional career. I encourage those of you who are not mentoring to consider sharing your insights and your wisdom with the next generation of leaders. As for the current mentors who have supported me along the way and countless others, thank you!
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Liza V. Craig is a partner at Reed Smith in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the firm’s Global Regulatory Enforcement Group, where she focuses on government contracting.