Tales from the trenches: Mentorship lessons learned
By Vanessa Werden
By Vanessa Werden
Over the course of my career, mentorship has been a constant part of my professional development. As both mentor and mentee, I have participated in mentorship events with professional and industry associations, more formal programs that match mentor and mentee, and informal mentoring relationships with friends and colleagues, within the law and construction communities. Each of these experiences was valuable in its own right, for different reasons.
Whether you are considering how to be a valuable mentor, or how to navigate mentorship as a mentee, the following five lessons I have learned may help you make the most of mentorship activities:
1. Anyone can be a mentor
You don’t need 30 years of experience and grey hair to be a valuable mentor. I met my first mentor in university. He continued to provide valuable support and guidance to me through law school and my early career, and had a profound impact on my approach to my profession. He had been practicing for about six years when I was admitted to law school. The length of his career never crossed my mind, because what mattered was his genuine interest in helping me achieve my goals. Fourteen years later, his wisdom and support remain a part of the fabric of my career.
2. Mentors don’t need to have all of the answers
In my third year of practice, I started mentoring law students. Did I have all of the answers to pave the way for a “successful” career? Of course not. The students seeking mentors primarily wanted guidance concerning their immediate challenges — how to shake off their nerves when networking with more senior professionals, how to write an effective job application, if and when to narrow their practice area. When it came to those questions, had I “been there, done that”? Absolutely. Those experiences were still in my rearview mirror, allowing me to truly empathize with their stress and share vivid tales from the trenches. Some of the most valuable advice comes in the form of shared experiences.
Keep in mind that a mentor and mentee do not necessarily need to be members of the same professional or have identical career paths. During my time as president of Canadian Construction Women, I built relationships with women from across the industry. Though my average day is not spent in the field I found I had faced similar issues and could provide relevant advice for networking, building relationships, setting goals, time and stress management, and balancing my career and family life.
3. Make a plan or schedule that works for both parties
At the outset of the relationship, determine the mentor and the mentee’s objectives, time constraints, and expectations. Some mentees are looking for periodic advice on an ad hoc basis and others prefer to meet at pre-determined intervals over a period of time. My most effective mentorships have been a combination of these approaches, with a pre-determined schedule for meetings at regular intervals, and the option to connect between meetings if the mentee needs guidance on a pressing issue.
4. Think big picture
Mentees are often individuals who are motivated and focused. They can sometimes get bogged down overthinking a slight misstep or painstakingly weighing a decision. I have been on both sides of the table, and one of the most valuable things a mentor can do is provide perspective. What is the ultimate goal, and how does the current problem or decision impact that goal? Or does it at all, or in any meaningful way? Asking these types of questions and brainstorming answers can spur thoughtful and reassuring discussion. Ideally, the mentee will go away from the discussion with a short-term plan, but more importantly, refocused on the big picture and confident in the chosen path.
5. Pay it forward
My first mentor dedicated a significant amount of time to my professional development. I’ve asked him over the years how I could ever thank him. He has only ever asked one thing: that I pay it forward. When you have received the benefit of mentorship, and learned from that experience, you have an opportunity to positively impact someone else’s life. Moreover, a very valuable consequence of mentoring others is personal and professional reflection. Mentoring often requires the mentor to consider their own career trajectory, decision-making processes, gaps in their communication skills, and their own goals. I truly believe that mentorship is a driver of success, and finding the right mentor can have a tangible impact on a mentee’s career. So take the leap — ask a colleague, join an association that provides mentorship programs, or start by asking others about their own mentorship experiences. I promise it will be worth your while.
Vanessa Werden is a construction lawyer at Jenkins Marzban Logan LLP.
She was included in On-Site’s inaugural 40 Under 40 in Canadian Construction. She is past president of Canadian Construction Women and the vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association (BC Branch) Construction Law Section.