Fiona Buchanan: Mentoring at Shepherd and Wedderburn



Fiona Buchanan

Fiona Buchanan extols the benefits of mentoring and looks at how it has been implemented at Shepherd and Wedderburn.

Shepherd and Wedderburn, as a collection of individuals and as a business, has put diversity and inclusivity at the heart its organisational culture and values. The business case for fostering diversity and inclusivity in the workplace is compelling.

As one of Scotland’s leading law firms, we recognise the benefits of having diverse teams comprising people with generally higher levels of self-awareness, who in turn help to create a more open, innovative, challenging and supportive working environment that improves overall performance.

However, as Iris Bohnet, the Albert Pratt Professor of business and government at Harvard University describes in her insightful book What Works, the journey to achieving better diversity in organisations is far from straightforward.

One of the principal challenges is overcoming the effects of biases, whether conscious, implicit or unconscious – a multitude of which operate in our day-to-day working lives.

Overcoming ‘group-think’ bias (allowing consensus and harmony in decision making to prevail over critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints) requires structures that support objective decision-making and a culture where appropriate challenge is encouraged.

Similarly, self-evaluation bias can see some under-represented minorities with potential for leadership underplay their skills if they lack impartial feedback that recognises their talent and the contribution they make, and instils confidence in them to push ahead, even if there are few people who look and sound like them on the next rung of the career ladder.

Related to this, pervasive stereotypical beliefs about what success should look like can also act as a barrier to progress. Having diverse role models articulate the many routes to, and definitions of, success can help challenge such stereotypes where a dearth of such role models can otherwise quash aspiration.

Recognising these challenges is all very well, but how do we go about changing things in practice where evidence suggests that simply providing colleagues and leaders with diversity training is of limited value?

Mentoring is just one way in which Shepherd and Wedderburn is addressing, at both an organisational and individual level, some of the challenges to achieving greater diversity in the workplace.

Mentoring can open the minds of individuals to alternative views beyond that of their line manager or business group. It is just one of the ways to prioritise diversity of thought over ‘group-think’ and cultural or team homogeneity.

One-to-one conversations can also improve awareness of the subconscious thoughts, assumptions and beliefs that slow or prevent behavioural change.

One of the key elements to a mentoring relationship is the ability to seek and provide honest feedback. This can help level out the negative impact of self-evaluation bias in certain minority groups – a “yes you can” conversation can be empowering in many ways. Mentors are also potentially strong role models who can help challenge stereotypes.

Looking beyond diversity-related goals, there are broader benefits to mentoring. Openly discussing goals and challenges with a colleague, other than an individual’s immediate line manager, can be extremely useful, as can helping people make commitments to action and helping them follow through on goals they set in an environment that is conducive to making plans, receiving feedback and being held accountable for what happens next.

Recognising these benefits, we assign a mentor to all our trainees when they join Shepherd and Wedderburn, and we have recently conducted a pilot scheme where we offered a mentor to each of our senior associates. In thinking about how best to approach this pilot project, we acknowledged that people often seek out their own informal mentors in organisations. We felt, however, that it was important to have a formal programme to ensure that our mentors were properly trained, that there was fair access to mentoring and that we had a mechanism for evaluating our mentoring programme to refine and improve it over time.

To achieve this, we worked with the independent consultant Kissing with Confidence to develop a training programme for our mentors and materials to assist them during mentoring sessions. We also ran sessions for our mentees to introduce them to the concept of mentoring and to allow them to formulate their expectations for the programme.

We have administered our pilot scheme centrally, matching mentees and mentors to ensure we are bringing people together from different parts of our business. The matching process has allowed mentees to choose from a selection of potential mentors, and has included a mechanism for moving on to a new mentor if the initial ‘chemistry’ has perhaps not worked as well as it might.

Our pilot has now concluded, and feedback has been exceptionally strong, all mentee respondents to a recent survey agreeing that we should roll out the mentoring initiative beyond the pilot, and over 90 per cent agreeing that they have experienced learning and growth, feel better about their careers and have clearer objectives as a result of mentoring.

Interestingly, it has also improved firm engagement, with almost 85 per cent of respondents saying they feel an even greater affinity to the firm as a direct result of mentoring. The next phase of our project will see us offer all associates in our business a mentor during the course of this year and a further group of mentors trained.

As a member of our firm’s Diversity and Inclusion and Gender Focus Steering Groups, and the partner leading our mentoring project, I am excited to look towards the coming months as we roll out the next phase of our mentoring project and evolve further the diversity of our organisation and people. Getting this right will make all the difference.

Fiona Buchanan is a partner at Shepherd and Wedderburn