Someone to trust: The value of peer mentorship

By Megan Rogers

Most of the discussion about mentoring revolves around students. Court reporters and captioners remember how difficult school was and recognize students’ need to have someone to go to for support and advice.

But what about after school? Reporting and captioning success in the real world require some measure of business skills. This becomes especially important if a reporter or captioner finds themselves operating as a one-person shop or running or owning a firm.

In 2016, Cassy Kerr, RPR, CRR, CRC, who owns StenoLogic in Tulsa, Okla., sent an email to the NCRA firm owners’ listserv asking for a firm-owner mentor. “I have been a reporter for 26 years and a firm owner for 13, and there are times when I need a sounding board, someone to go to with business questions, out of the social media arena,” Kerr said. “It’s hard being a firm owner, and it’s hard being a small-firm owner and a working reporter and trying to keep all the balls in the air at once.”

“I didn’t set out to be a firm owner,” explained Kerr in an interview with the JCR. “My passion lies with court reporting, but there are consequential duties that come with being a small-firm owner.” She further said: “All responsibilities fall on my shoulders, including calendaring the depositions, ordering supplies, invoicing transcripts, paying taxes, all the back office support that comes with running a business. I have outside help from my accountant, bookkeeper, scopists, proofreader, copying/scanning service, and the like; and they take away some of the pressure, but those responsibilities ultimately end with me.”

Kim Thayer, RPR, CRR, owner of Kim Thayer & Associates in Hanford, Calif., was one of the people who responded to Kerr’s message. Thayer agreed that a business mentor would be helpful. “As a reporter, you don’t realize the nuts and bolts that go into making a firm run,” she said. For example: “I had no idea all the contracts that needed to be read over and analyzed, from renting copy machines to software agreements. At the time I was leasing space for our office, so I had to learn how to deal with the leasing company. All the extra costs of running a business were probably the most surprising, employee taxes, etc.”

Thayer has a similar experience to Kerr in that she’s actively reporting. “That’s where I find the most fulfillment and joy,” she said. She’s been reporting since 1990 and bought the firm in 2005. Also like Kerr, she hadn’t previously anticipated owning a firm. “My current firm I worked for, the owner took me to lunch, told me she was retiring, felt I would be the best fi t to buy her firm,” she explained. “After a week of thinking it out, pros and cons, we went into negotiations.”

Kerr’s desire for a mentor isn’t a new concept in the business world. Sometimes this comes in the form of a peer mentor and sometimes it comes in the form of a mastermind group.

Thayer found a mentor in the previous owner of the firm, who stayed on for another couple years working as a reporter. “The greatest benefit was I was able to call and ask her about the business when something came up, so I had direct access to answers,” said Thayer.

Mentors “can provide guidance, wisdom, and direction so you don’t become mired in self-doubt,” said Sumi Krishnan in a 2015 article entitled “Why Entrepreneurs Need Mentors and How to Find Them” for Entrepreneur. Krishnan is the CEO of K4 Solutions, a technology and staffing service, based in Falls Church, Va. “You may try to use friends, family members, and colleagues as mentors. But that won’t work. Those people can’t empathize with many of your struggles the way a mentor in your industry can.” Krishnan suggests three different types of mentors:

  • The ‘mentor from afar’: “Often a stranger who doesn’t know you but is still someone who can have a great impact on how you run your business.”
  • The industry-specific mentor: “He or she can help you with industry-dependent challenges, like managing finances and choosing suppliers. These individuals rarely mentor full time, but their one-on-one advice can be invaluable, especially in niche fields.”
  • The direct mentor: “Usually professionals whom you may be paying in return for their support.”

Jason Meadors, FAPR, RPR, CRR, CRC, has served as both mentee and mentor based on Krishnan’s categories, although he doesn’t use those terms. “If someone’s talking about how they do a certain thing — as an example, reading/signing — then rather than counter with, ‘Oh, I do it this way,’ I try to think, ‘How would that work for me?’ I’ve gotten a lot of good business tips that way, just from listening,” he said. Meadors, who also responded to Kerr’s inquiry on the listserv, has also acted as an advisor to reporters who are setting up their own business: “I tell them they should have a corporate entity, have their own cards, fi le their quarterlies, contact firms for work other than me, etc.”

Unlike Kerr and Thayer, Meadors set out to start his own firm, Meadors Court Reporting in Fort Collins, Colo. “I started my own shop on a shoestring, and not a nice new shoestring out of the pack, but a frayed and tied-together one that looked like it had belonged to a teenager trying to outrun a pack of dogs,” he said. The appeal of owning a firm, however, was “playing by my own rules.”

Meadors has also tapped into what is essentially an informal mastermind group. “I’m fortunate that in Colorado, we have a pretty collegial bunch to whom I can talk without a lot of worries,” although he admits, “I do have a few colleagues I relate to more often.”

In a 2013 article for Forbes entitled “7 Reasons To Join A Mastermind Group,” Stephanie Burns describes a mastermind group as “a group of smart people [who] meet weekly, monthly, daily even if it makes sense, to tackle challenges and problems together. They lean on each other, give advice, share connections, and do business with each other when appropriate.” Burns is the founder and CEO of Chic CEO based in San Diego, Calif. She lists advisement, collaborating, extending your network, and cross-promotion as some of the reasons to form a mastermind group. “By interacting and sharing your challenges, it’s almost certain that someone in your mastermind will have a solution for you, and you may also be able to offer a solution, connection, or tactic to help another in the group,” Burns said.

“Sometimes you just need some trusted colleagues who are at the same place in their development to hash around ideas with. That, in a nutshell, is the mastermind group,” said Adrienne Montgomerie in a 2015 blog post entitled “How a Mastermind Group Educates Sr Editors” for Copyediting.com. Montgomerie is a certified copyeditor and editorial consultant based in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “To start your own mastermind group, list the colleagues you turn to regularly for advice (or who you would like to) and who consults you. Pick people who share aspects of your own practice,” Montgomerie said. “One or two points in common is essential, but points of contrast are very important, too. You want to be able to draw on each other’s different strengths.” She also notes: “Your mastermind group doesn’t have to be local. Online chat systems, video conferencing, or even a group email chain can facilitate communications.”

In a 2013 article for Entrepreneur entitled “Look to Peer Mentoring Groups for Ideas, Support, and Tough Love,” Brian Barquilla, who uses the term peer mentoring group, explained, “Peer mentoring groups are usually 10 or 12 owners of similarly sized, non-competing businesses who get together to help each other find faster, easier ways to build a great company.” Barquilla is the president of AdvantageB2B Consulting + Marketing in Jacksonville, Fla. Since Barquilla suggests finding peer mentors outside of your own industry, he points out: “It is likely whatever problems you face, someone in your group has faced it and remedied it, but what worked for one industry may not with another.”

Previous experience with a professional group is what got Kerr started in thinking about finding a mentor. “I became involved a couple of years ago with 4word, a Christian professional women’s organization that promotes mentors in the workplace, and that is when I first became aware that even working women need mentors, and it gave me the idea to reach out to the listserv,” said Kerr.

Kerr admitted that she doesn’t want to feel like she’s bothering a court reporting friend who may be too busy to answer obligatory questions, so having a wide network can help. Meadors explained: “Really, conventions — state, user group, and national — have been huge for me in establishing connections and listening to what others do. I had one firm owner tell me back in the 1980s, ‘I have gotten back every penny I have ever spent on NCRA conventions just for business knowledge and contacts,’ and I find that to be true. And then that leads to friendships and ongoing contacts. There are firm owners coast to coast and in between with whom I chat, all thanks to those connections.”

Perhaps the most challenging step is swallowing that pride and understanding the value of reaching out. “I shrugged off wondering what other reporters and firm owners would negatively think about a 26-yearplus reporter and experienced firm owner asking for help,” said Kerr. “I made myself vulnerable because my thoughts are we reporters need to ask for help from our colleagues, we need to continue learning and growing in our profession, and we need to stop thinking we will look incompetent if we ask for help.”

“No matter how high your position in a court reporting firm,” Kerr concluded, “I believe everyone would benefit with a mentor.”

Megan Rogers is NCRA’s Communications Assurance Specialist. She can be reached at mrogers@ncra.org.