“How much does your building weigh, Norman?”

A guest post from Jane Jarman, professor at Nottingham Law School, and a solicitor at its teaching law firm, the Legal Advice Centre.

Jarman: A good mentor should be willing to challenge and be challenged

Mentoring programmes are increasingly common in law firms. The weight of academic literature points to the positive benefits of mentoring on professional development.

Whilst some programmes are formal and linked to appraisals and a specific career trajectory, in other cases mentoring is informal and self-selected. On occasion, the relationship may be so informal that neither party perceives the mentoring element at all, or at least not until much later.

Even though mentoring is agreed to be a good thing, the word “mentor” is often used to describe a variety of career-related roles ranging from career coach, to work supervisor or role model. A coach may well focus on a specific career goal. A supervisor may focus on technical aspects of work.

Most lawyers have more than one role model who may not even know that they perform such a function. One person may perform multiple roles concurrently.

At this point, I should, perhaps, define the various features of the mentoring relationship. Yet, if the role is so flexible and nuanced, perhaps a better approach is to focus on one very successful mentoring relationship and what it can tell us about the impact on both parties.

This brings me to the question asked by the architect, R Buckminster Fuller, of his mentee, Norman Foster, now Lord Foster, as Foster showed him around at the opening of the celebrated Sainsbury Centre for the Arts at the University of East Anglia: “How heavy is your building, Norman?”

Lord Foster recalled the impact of the question. “He was challenging us to discover how efficient [it] was… we did not know the answer, but we worked it out and wrote to him. We learned from the exercise, as he predicted we would.”

The question was telling. It exemplified the essence of what a good mentor should be: focused on the present and the future; interested in the work of the other; and, importantly, willing to challenge and be challenged.

What can we learn about the mentoring relationship from Foster and Buckminster Fuller?

Mentors often just emerge rather than being appointed. Whilst the self-selected mentor can be the most influential and long lasting, mentors of differing types may appear throughout a career.

It is not always a ‘very senior/very junior’ relationship. Foster and his mentor were both established architects when they met, and their relationship was one of collaborative mentoring.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the potential for near-peer mentoring of a trainee or newly qualified lawyer by a junior associate. The challenge is often to capture and reward near-peer mentoring, which is often hidden. Time recording records often provide a clue, but the trusted near-peer often does the work without necessarily recording the time.

Mentoring can be an echo of a dialogue that sticks. Although Foster and Buckminster Fuller worked together for several years, it is possible for someone you met just once to exert a profound influence. A question from a person with real perception can have a kind of mentoring half-life. A question asked of me many years ago, “but when do you have time to think?”, still resonates on a busy day.

A safe space. Mentoring is about dialogue, not about imposing a solution. The focus is on the growing autonomy of the mentee, not a replay of the mentor’s experience. It is not the role of the mentor to tell but to listen and, on occasion, question.

Most mentees just need space to make their own decisions. Foster was aware of this context albeit in retrospect. “It is only now that I realize the extent to which Bucky was able to draw me out through our conversations without my realizing it.”

It is not one-way traffic – Foster acknowledged that he learned much from the question, as his mentor had predicted. The care taken to answer is testament to their ongoing dialogue. Buckminster Fuller also knew that less is often more. He left the answer to Foster.

Buckminster Fuller, a gifted architect, created space for Foster to develop into one of the most celebrated architects of his generation. For Foster, the impact was transformative: “He was one of those rare individuals who could fundamentally influence the way that you come to view the world.”

Whilst we cannot hope for, or do not need, mentors such as Buckminster Fuller, we should take time to recognise the benefits of being a mentor and a mentee, especially as the roles are often concurrent, and their value to both parties.

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