A first-year associate at a big firm posed this question in New York Law Journal:
I've met only once with the partner who is assigned to be my mentor. We had a long lunch, about six months ago. What should I do next -- wait for my mentor to contact me or should I contact him?
Career counselor Linda Laufer's answer in NYLJ: "Your assigned mentor can be a valuable resource. Do not read too much into your lack of contact with him. Take the first step and see where it leads."
Sure, it doesn't hurt to make another effort. But if your mentor is elusive, why knock yourself out? From what I've seen, assigned mentors often have neither the interest nor the talent to help associates navigate their careers. Personally, I've never expected more than a free lunch from the designated mentors in my past.
But there seems to be a mentor mania these days--the belief that your career will be doomed without some sort of guru by your side. The notion is that you won't get the choice assignments or develop (or inherit) key clients unless there's someone to watch over you.
My view: Nice if it happens, but don't depend on it. Frankly, getting a good mentor is as elusive as finding true love.
"For the most part, formal mentoring programs don't work," says Orrick partner Patricia Gillette. That's particularly true for women, she adds. "Women don't necessarily get aligned with the strongest partners," says Gillette. "They are frequently assigned to female partners who have no business." In most instances, she adds, firms mean well, believing that women will find more affinity with another woman.
But Gillette also says that women--more than men--buy into the mentor fallacy: "I actually think women have focused way too much on mentors." Not having a mentor, she explains, "has become an excuse for a lot of women," says Gillette. "Women will say, 'I can't be successful because I have no role models, and men are not good role models.'" The problem, she says, is that associates get so fixated on the concept of the ideal mentor that they fail "to forge their own careers," and become their own advocates.
All this reminds me of the proverbial Cinderella complex. But instead of waiting for Prince Charming to come to the rescue, women (and probably some men too) are looking for that special mentor to save the day. And dare I say that most of us probably expect The One to be male?
It's far wiser, I think, to cast a wider net and seek out a variety of people as mentors. In fact, let's dispense with the concept of mentor altogether, and just call them revolving advisers or sounding boards.
Revolving advisers/sounding boards seem pedestrian, I know. But aren't reduced expectations exactly what we need?
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.
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