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The Rungs of Learning with Lisa Fain, Former Attorney & Now Mentoring Expert and Author

Lisa Fain, CEO of Center for Mentoring Excellence, and I are part of the same mastermind group. I have to admit, I was kind of intimidated when I first met her - smart, confident, curious, driven, attentive and kind. But because she's so real and authentic, any intimidation I felt dissipated after 30 seconds of knowing her.

She's an incredible listener, great questioner and creative problem solver so it's not surprising she ended up in the profession she's in - helping organizations achieve better business results through mentoring.

In this month's blog, not only do you get to read about Lisa's learning journey but also get some insight on how to choose a mentor. Enjoy!

Tell us a bit about your business, Center for Mentoring Excellence.

The Center for Mentoring Excellence has been around since 1992 and was founded by my mother, Dr. Lois Zachary. It was designed to help organizations create mentoring cultures. We’re not a one stop, check the box destination as what we really do is work with organizations to help them holistically create mentoring cultures to yield the results that mentoring can bring. That’s everything from speaking, coaching, facilitation and consulting on creating programs that are sustainable.

What is mentoring? How can leaders create a mentoring culture in their organization?

Mentoring is really all about learning. Learning is the purpose, the process, and the product of mentoring. To have a mentoring culture, you need a culture that values learning and an organization that has a growth mindset. There’s an understanding that your talents, skills and knowledge aren’t fixed and they are something that can be developed so you have to model that in all aspects of your organization.

You can’t have a mentoring culture if leaders aren’t investing in their own learning or people aren’t held accountable in investing in their own learning or in that of others. If leaders aren’t walking the talk, it’s going to seem like lip service to the people they lead. One thing that often happens is the leader can lag behind their people and, as their people start to grow, leaders start to follow. Many times, as people are mentored, they learn how to give feedback to their leaders. Sometimes changes come from the top and sometimes changes come from the other way.

You were an attorney early in your career. What got you interested in law in the first place and what led to the pivot to mentoring and coaching?

I don’t remember ever making a conscious choice to be a lawyer. It was like I woke up one day and there I was. I come from a family of lawyers and was in mock trial in high school. After college, I went to D.C. and did some lobbying for a not-for-profit on refugee and immigrant issues. I decided that if I wanted to stay involved in this line of work and wanted to write legislation, I should get a law degree. After law school, I went to work at a large law firm to pay down the debt from my degree.

It was a great firm and I learned so much but it was still a law firm and I wasn’t a happy lawyer. I knew the more they pushed me to litigation it meant I had to work 70-80 hours a week. I looked for jobs loosely on the side but after ten years, it got to be too much when I got a message from my four-year-old daughter on my phone. I’d just pulled an all nighter and went briefly downstairs for breakfast. When I went back upstairs, I listened to her message and she said “Mommy, come home. We need a mommy not a lawyer.” It was 7:30 in the morning and I shoved my office door closed and I started wailing.

It was the worst/best gift I could have gotten. Otherwise, where might I be in another ten years? I knew at that moment that I wasn’t living my values. I put my whole heart into job search and went in-house as an attorney to a company to set their employment policies and improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity was part of my job but eventually I got to do it full time and I also became a coach. As I was doing all that, my mom came into our company do the mentoring program for the organization’s women’s group. There we realized that the synergies between what she loved, which was mentoring and creating learning relationships, and what I loved, transforming meaningful relationships on the workplace with people who are different from you, could come together in a meaningful way.

What skills or attributes from your attorney days did you bring to your current work the most?

First of all, listening because a good attorney listens first before problem solving, which is another skill that also translates but it has to be in that order – listening, then problem solving.

Problem solving is used in working with clients about what will make an effective mentoring program in their organization. I need to know their cultural context, background and what leadership support looks like so I can help them figure out what they need.

Problem solving is also present in in a mentoring relationship although it is not a mentor’s job to solve their mentees problems. It’s the mentor’s job to ask great question and to help their mentee solve their own problems.

Also, I think logical thinking and skepticism that come from being a lawyer (which can be really irritating for other people but it’s really helpful) to being able to think things through and foresee objections. It’s about understanding that when people doubt you, instead of crumbling, it becomes fuel.

Another thing I took away is this belief that you can change your own circumstances. You actually have a lot more agency over things than you think you do. I didn’t use that in law but it did help me get to place where I get a lot more satisfaction when I got out of law.

What was the transition like being an employee to being an employer? It felt like the shift from employee to entrepreneur was bigger than the shift from employee to employer but how I was going to navigate working with my mom was at the forefront of my mind. We always got long but I was nervous about boundaries and how we think differently (she’s amazing on theory and I’m more strategic) and mothers and daughters can be short with one another. But she was actually so incredibly respectful of my expertise.

I didn’t take over the business until after we worked together for two years, and it was an amazing experience. She was open to feedback and suggestions and provided feedback. It was surprisingly smooth.

The bigger transition was when I took over the business. It was exciting but I had to think not just about the subject matter side but the business side. There was a big learning curve, and my mom was the ultimate mentor.

Shifting gears to your authorship, how has writing contributed to your growth as a coach or a businessperson?

Writing is about connecting the dots for me. I’m not sure there are very many original thoughts in the universe, there are just original connections. I’m a huge reader and I love connecting the dots between things in my coaching and the concepts I’m hearing with the things that I’m learning.

Writing been a great magnet for more opportunity and helped solidify me as an expert in my own right. I also think writing helps crystalize my thinking and my conviction grows as I write more. I’m really passionate about the stuff I’ve written about, and I have desire to get the word out because I want other people to read it and benefit from it.

If someone is considering a mentor or coach, what are some things they should think about when choosing that person?

It’s different for mentor than for a coach. Mentoring has three characteristics that make it different from coaching: reciprocity, co-creation and learning.

For example, mentors and mentees give and get and they co -create the terms of their mentoring relationship. And, unlike coaching, there are very few professional mentors – you don’t go out and hire a mentor in the U.S. (although this is getting more common in other countries).

When you are looking for a mentor, the first question is “what do I want to learn?”. Identify where you want to grow and then look for “who”. If you look for “who” first, you can get too caught up in charisma. To find potential mentors, identify who you know who might know someone and remember that you might want to have several conversations with someone before you ask for a mentoring relationship.

Make sure you don’t have just one mentor or one kind of mentorship. There’re peer mentors, group mentoring and many mentors for many seasons. Surround yourself with people you can learn from.

When choosing a coach, you want to know what you want to learn but you hire them more for their coaching skills, not as much as for their experience like you would with a mentor.

What are you focusing your learning on these days?

I’m thinking a lot more about intergenerational mentoring and have been interested in the idea of building trust in mentoring relationships and want to go deeper in that space. We are in a world now where most mentoring is virtual and I’m thinking more about that too and how you create effective relationships across distance.

You can find more about the services provided by Center for Mentoring Excellence on their website or order a copy of The Mentor's Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships to study up on the topic.

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