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#ChangeThroughAction: AJ Venter on the benefits of mentoring

Overview

Mentoring can have many benefits both for the mentor and the mentee and can create an environment for challenging questions and encourage reflection as well as dialogue with peers, outsiders and people who think differently. In this interview, we speak to Corporate Senior Counsel, AJ Venter, who has informally mentored members of the CME team since 2015.
 
Here, AJ explores the benefits of mentoring further, explains how it doesn't have to be a formal process and discusses the rewards it can bring for all of those involved.

How did you start mentoring CME associates and trainees? Did it start as a formal process or come about naturally?

In my experience, mentoring creates a ripple effect. If you benefit from mentoring at key stages in your career you are more likely to be naturally inclined to be a mentor. I benefitted greatly (and still do) from a number of colleagues (at different levels of seniority) who were very generous and invested time in building a relationship with me around my career development and ambitions. Initially the focus was mainly on technical skills and know-how and later this evolved to also include softer skills and strategic career decisions. This has been mainly a natural process rather than anything formal. 

Mentoring feels natural to me given how well it was modelled to me. In transactional practice areas the deal pace can be relentless and formal catch-ups often fail to materialise. However, being aware of natural touchpoints for conversations such as after an intensive period of work in the run up to completion, creates an opportunity to build or strengthen a mentoring relationship.

Why do you think mentoring is so crucial to professional development?

Perspective. Mentorship is not a problem-solving exercise  – at its best it gives the mentee perspective. Perspective on your strengths, challenges, goals, ambition and attitude. In high-performance teams, the nature of the day job is such that you are constantly juggling pressing work tasks, personal responsibilities as well as managing professional and personal relationships.

Very few of us are able to step out of that day-to-day battle with a balanced sense of self-awareness or perspective on the bigger picture – including long term career goals and development opportunities. A good mentoring relationship creates an environment for challenging questions and encourages reflection as well as dialogue with peers, outsiders and people who think differently. If a mentoring relationship simply confirms everything you think, it is probably not working.

What are the key lessons or tips you would try to impart to a mentee?

Per Baz Luhrmann:

"… Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it

Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past

From the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts

And recycling it for more than it's worth…"

  • Aspects of successful mentorship that are not negotiable are trust and intentional relational interaction. This can look very different from person to person, of course – but if you do not trust your mentor and do not feel that interaction is intentional and relational then it is unlikely to be of much value.
  • Be open to advice and challenge but own the agenda, your career and the risks you take. If you understand yourself better as a result of the mentoring relationship, it is working.​​​​​​
  • Finally, remember that mentoring relationships are not exclusive and they have a lifespan. Seek out suitable mentoring relationships for different seasons and challenges in your career.

Do you have a particularly rewarding moment in relation to your mentoring?

It is great to celebrate successes of mentees. However, for me it has been particularly rewarding to see a number of mentees in our team become natural mentors to other colleagues and paying it forward.

Did you have a mentor in your early career? If so, what were they like and what did you take away from this experience? If you didn't, how do you think you would have benefited from a mentor?

I was fortunate to have a great mentor as a trainee. I worked very closely with a partner during one of my seats and he was incredibly generous with advice and challenged me to have a different perspective and to embrace things outside my comfort zone.  After that seat we would have regular catch-ups and he took a genuine interest in my career. That mentoring relationship was a great foundation for me and it made me seek out mentors that are trustworthy and relational. The lasting impression of that experience was how generous he was taking an interest in my career – he was a successful senior partner and I was only at the start of my career.

There is no doubt that I was fortunate to have stumbled across my first mentor in that way. However, waiting and hoping to stumble across something similar is a not a good strategy. Always be on the lookout for individuals you respect and that might be willing to mentor you – take the initiative and suggest a catch-up to see if it could develop into a longer-term relationship. It goes without saying that where a formal mentoring programme is available to you, grab the opportunity with both hands, it is a smarter way to find a mentor than hoping you will stumble across one.

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