Why mentorship is important?

At every company that I have had the opportunity to work for I’ve made it a point to seek out someone who I could respect and grow from as well as individuals that I could help.  I have found that the pattern of the above (mentoring), with (walking with), and below (being mentored) model works out really well for growth.

In mentoring, there are so many opportunities to grow from both sides. I strongly believe that every culture could benefit in a big way from having mentorship as a feature of how we live and work.

Challenge statement

As engineers grow throughout their careers they can either share and help others or let the experience they have gained circle in their own personal echo chamber.  I am of the opinion that an engineer can only go so far as a successful IC and leader without mentoring - meaning growth comes from both sides of that relationship.

Here’s the problem - often times people want to give back and help but they’ve never been taught how or been given a framework to use to drive their efforts.  This lack of engagement often leads to failed mentoring experiments and attempts which sour both the mentor and mentee.

The “Design”

There are many ways to build a mentoring framework.  I have taken stabs at this in the past and have benefited from some great mentors and sponsors over the years to help me course correct.  Over the years there have been a collection of core needs and perspectives that can be distilled down to what a mentor can provide to a mentee.

Key protocols:

  • Mentorship MUST BE two-way
  • Mentorship CAN BE all-encompassing (life and work)
  • Mentoring SHOULD BE low friction
  • Mentoring MUST BE bi-directional
  • Every mentor MUST have at least one mentor
  • Every mentor SHOULD have at least one mentee (obvious right) but no more than two or three
  • Mentoring SHOULD BE a “safe place” for both individuals
  • Mentoring SHOULD BE enjoyable - if it’s stressful or unpleasant then that is a smell in the process and people and should be handled immediately
  • Mentors starting out for the first time SHOULD have relatable context with their mentee. 1. This gives the mentor the chance to build some durability in their approaches and 2. Context can be - mentee is an engineer, the mentor should have been or is an engineer, so on...
  • The framework SHOULD BE simple
  • The framework SHOULD BE right-sized (meaning conceptually it can fit in your head without having to refer to a document

Key conversations

There would always be a series of topics that would come up - different context but generally the same scenarios. The following represents things a mentor should be able to help a mentee through…

Career advise / direction

This one is often on the top of many mentee’s minds; not just for climbing ladders, getting titles, or raises either.  I find that if someone is willing to be a mentee, often it’s because they want to be challenged and want to grow - those folks make fantastic leaders.

These are sometimes challenging conversations. Topics/questions that appear here could be:

  • How can I make an impact in the role I am currently in?
  • How can I grow and get more trust and responsibility?
  • Am I in the right role?
  • I think I want to leave the company, what should I do?
  • What do I need to do to get from role/title x to get to role/title y?
  • I don’t think I really enjoy the work I do, what should I do?
  • I want to learn more about x, how can I do that while working full time?
  • My friend just left the company, can we talk about that?
  • I’d like to get involved in mentorship, how do I do that?

Daily topics

These are often problems or thoughts that are well defined; things that the mentee might’ve already created a solution for and simply needs direction or validation on. They can be technical but also cultural and personal things will always be peppered in here.

  • I’m struggling with algorithm x, can you help me approach this problem differently; with fresh eyes?
  • I’d like to communicate topic x to my team, what are some ways I can do that successfully?

Broad topics

These can be deceptively complex and quite possibly some of the most challenging of all. They represent the less defined more cultural like things (though they can be technical and specific).

These often come from large swings in life, culture, company decisions, changes in project plans, and technological shifts in our industry. These may look like:

  • Hey did you see the new tech x that was just released!  What does that mean for us?
  • I want to get involved in open source, how can I do that?
  • My work and life balance is a mess, what can I do?
  • This project that I have been working on for x months just got dropped on the floor, what should I do?
  • I am stuck in conflict with an individual on my team, can you help me think of ways to resolve it?
  • I’d like to give a talk on x can you help me structure my thoughts?

Key challenges

As a mentor and mentee, you should both expect to be challenged.  It would be a waste if all of this time was spent building a relationship but there was no candor or genuine accountability.  There should always be a set of action items after a meeting - i.e you took the time to connect, it was intentional, therefore there should be an outcome for growth.  These things can really be simple but powerful in helping both of you grow. Here are the core principles of being challenged and held accountable - remember, the goal here is to grow, learn, and become better incrementally:

  • Acknowledge that the mentor/mentee relationship is sacred and safe
  • Be candid with each other
  • Hold each other to account: Hey how did x go last week?
  • ALWAYS provide goals
  • ALWAYS ask questions
  • ALWAYS have compassion and empathy

The “How To”

One of the biggest roadblocks to mentorship is getting started and having a primer to help things go smoothly.  Here are some things that can be used to get moving in the right direction.

Being a mentor

It is a fulfilling and challenging responsibility to give back (most likely as you were given to).  In general, we can use seniority or title to help group individuals but this can also be dangerous - the person might end up not having the desire to do it for whatever reason, the person might already have a heavy load, etc…

Whatever the case is we, as leaders, should look for opportunities to lift others up and encourage their growth as well as our own (you will have tons of growth as a mentor!).

If you want to be a mentor steps to that might include:

  1. Evaluate your schedule.  Generally, the commitment is once per week or twice a month but there is a bit of cognitive payout as well.  Think about when you eventually meet up - will this person have your full attention - remember this is someone’s life and they have a desire to grow.
  2. Understand the costs.  If you choose to be a mentor just be mindful that you might create less code or have to trade off something to sow into this individual - but I can assure you the benefits can be tremendous.
  3. Fill out your profile in your space on confluence, linked-in, etc..  You’ll be connecting with someone in a real, deep way - they want to get to know you before they make the jump into all of this.
  4. Sign up, become part of the group (as stated in the “Finding a mentor” section - while there is no formal program we should put one together.

What does this framework look like?

Often, you'll find, that there is no formal framework at organizations (this is sad, but likely true) the simple answer is, you should make one. The framework around this can be super simple.

Let's look at a simple, low friction approach to this below...

Finding a mentor

You can  use your current toolsets such as slack to enable this.

Go to channel X and [at] mycompany_mentors (for instance) and leave a message that you’d like to be part of the program.

  1. A mentor should in that group should then reach out  -  low oversight here because everyone should be responsible and capable of determining how effective they are with their workload
  2. Establish a commitment with the mentor

Finding a mentee

As with above, if there is no mentor channel or framework, the simple answer is, you should make one. Again, the framework around this can be super simple. Let's use our example tool slack to enable this.

  1. Go to channel X and [at] mycompany_mentees (for instance) and leave a message that you are available to be a mentor
  2. A mentee (someone who has added themselves to the “[at] mycompany_mentees” group) should then reach out based  -  low oversight here because everyone should be responsible and capable of determining how effective they are with their workload
  3. Establish a commitment with the mentee

Meetings and keeping track

This can look very different for any given environment, culture, and business.  I have found the following to work incredibly well:

  • There CAN BE a bi-weekly cadence (I have found any longer there becomes a disconnect)
  • There SHOULD BE consistency
  • If needing to cancel ALWAYS notify and reschedule
  • Keep track of action items and conversations (see example below)
  • Mentees SHOULD ALWAYS bring questions and topics for discussion (big or small)
  • Mentors SHOULD ALWAYS bring questions and topics for discussion (big or small)

Want to get involved?

There are plenty of ways to get active in mentoring and/or being a mentee and you should want to give back, grow, and learn - there are loads of opportunities!

  • Start this in your organization! Try the things above.  Like software, iterate and make it better.
  • Try an established Mentor program, such as PlatoHQ.  Reach out to me on that platform as well if you'd like to connect - I have loads of fun being a mentor/sponsor and growing from those relationships there.
  • Reach out on twitter, linked-in, or whatever social platform.  It's really easy: "I'm looking for a mentor as a software engineer, can anyone help?" or "I'd like to help out anyone who needs it as a mentor or sponsor..."