Hashi Mohamed explains the power of mentoring, and how to do it effectively and inspirationally using honesty and planning
What makes a good mentor? The best of my own mentors offered me, as well as their consistent presence in my life, four things.
First was access to people, things and information that I couldn’t find myself, whether that was a trip to the theatre, an introduction, or a detailed breakdown of the psychological landscape of the profession.
The second was a safe space in which there were no stupid questions: I could always (and still do) call them up with my latest crazy plan, and come away with a ‘yes’, a ‘yes, but’, or a ‘no, not yet’.
Thirdly, they were honest: honest about my strengths and my weaknesses, and also about the challenges I faced.
But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they imagined for me a future that I couldn’t quite see myself.
Why plans are essential
Plans don’t spring into your mind fully formed; they are shaped by what you know to be possible. As I spent more time at the Bar, I could see how so many of my ambitious, brilliant colleagues – who seemed to have such a clear idea of where they were going – were acting out something that had already been planned for them, following in the steps of a parent or some other role model in whom they could see themselves reflected.
Plugging the information gap can take many forms: from the simple and practical (dress codes, presentation skills, CV drafting) to the more nuanced and conceptual (human nature and psychology, reading a room, working out where you stand – and not just figuratively – in a particular group).
But I think that constructing a proper plan – and establishing the difference between having a goal and having a plan – is one of the most important.
Watch out for quicksand
All of my mentees are ambitious and driven: I wouldn’t have met them in the first place if they weren’t. But they are also subject to the same basic messaging from society that we all receive; that status and wealth are everything.
They set their sights high, as they should, but I see my role as partly to remind them that life is also about fulfilment and happiness – and that they’re unlikely to really thrive if their goal isn’t a reflection of their talents and needs.
I might, for instance, suggest to a clever and ambitious mentee who nonetheless struggles with organisation and self-discipline that being self-employed (as all barristers are) is unlikely to work for her: she’s best placed to succeed with the structure that a nine-to-five office job would offer her.
Of course, a mentor should not be making the plan for the mentee, or taking the big decisions for them. It’s about giving them a compass, a few basic directions – and a reminder to watch out for quicksands, cliffs and other hazards.
You have to be honest
Mentoring is often not about getting someone all the way. It’s about getting them to the same starting line as everyone else. It’s as if the path to success is a scale from one to 10, with the socially mobile starting at zero, and everyone else beginning at five. Your job is about those first five steps; after that, they should be able to look after themselves.
An essential part of this is honesty. Sometimes the unconditional support a mentee needs will take the form of tough love.
Again, when comparing notes with friends and colleagues who come from middle-class backgrounds, I was always astonished by how structured their childhoods had been, how the discipline and order that is such a crucial part of professional life had been imposed on them from such a young age that it was second nature.
Even something as simple as regular bedtimes and meal times provides the basis of an ability to impose order on your life, something that many people have never had the opportunity to develop.
A shock can be helpful
In my experience, mentees need boundaries, and you’ll do them no favours by making allowances for behaviour that others won’t tolerate.
By way of example, I had a young man turn up to my chambers for shadowing. He was four minutes late, and hadn’t brought a pen or piece of paper.
It might seem like a small thing, but at the Bar nothing is more important than being prepared and you’ll never make it if you don’t have your shit together. So I sent him home straight away.
The next day – and for the rest of the week – he turned up to chambers before I did. We had a conversation about it and, by the end of the week, we could even laugh about it. I’m confident that, shocking though it was at the time, this is what he needed at that particular moment.
British politeness has its place, but sometimes it’s the direct (and sometimes brutal) approach I picked up from my African grandmother that serves me best.
Don't avoid tricky subjects
As well as fostering self-reliance and discipline, honest mentoring also means not shying away from difficult topics.
Skirting around subjects like race, prejudice and privilege because you lack the confidence to address them leaves a gap in your mentee’s understanding of their situation (if they haven’t grasped it immediately, which they may have), and this does them no favours.
It is so important that the deeply problematic issues are not avoided: a young, working-class Muslim woman facing a panel of interviewees who do not look like her already feels different before she’s taken her seat. To have someone raise these issues in a safe environment, to verbalise what she might already be feeling, to say that it’s OK to feel it and here’s how to deal with it – this is the least a mentor can offer a mentee.
Failure to address these things head-on, being too squeamish to offer advice about whether they are really suited to the path they are trying to follow, or to point out an adjustable issue like poor grammar – these are all betrayals.
Mentees who come from what are sometimes described as “non-traditional” backgrounds need to know the reality of what faces them and to be aware of an important fact: the myth of meritocracy hurts the most disadvantaged.
Britain likes to present itself as a land of (at least potential) opportunity, and of hard grafters who, in the Conservative MP Norman Tebbit’s famous image, get on their bikes and look for work. Don’t let your mentees take the strain of trying to reconcile that image with reality.