How to be a mentor
Mentorship tends to be a hot topic at any company that cares about its employees. I’ve experienced a variety of mentorship approaches in my career and learned one important lesson: very few people are taught how to be mentors. There are no good guides, no classes, and typically little organizational support. Yet that won’t stop people from assigning you to be a mentor or having people approach you in an ad hoc way about helping them at work.
I’m a very big believer that mentoring should be part of every senior engineer’s job. Senior engineers should mentor junior engineers, staff engineers should mentor senior engineers, principal engineers should mentor staff engineers, and so on. The junior engineers are, naturally, off the hook until they get promoted. Mentorship should be a vital part of any engineering organization, as working with people becomes more and more important in your career.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot through the mentors I had and have done a lot of reflection to figure out why they were so effective. I’ve tried to put those learnings into action with the engineers I’ve mentored. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
Make it their time
As opposed to meeting with managers, where the manager likely has some sort of agenda for their employee, a mentoring relationship and discussion should be different. This is the mentee’s time and they should be free to use it how they see fit. As a mentor, you can have certain agenda items for the mentee, such as encouraging them to be more outspoken. However, the meeting time is for the benefit of the mentee, and that means they should be the ones setting the primary agenda for the discussion.
As a mentor, you should help fill in the gaps if the mentee isn’t sure what to discuss. Ask what they’ve been working on recently and whether or not there were any issues with it. Are they enjoying their team? What do they want to focus on? Simple questions can help kickstart a conversation.
Mentor the whole person
It’s very easy to get caught up in the career aspect of mentorship. Many mentees are looking for tips to get promoted or land a different job. That’s all well and good, and honestly, is the easiest part of mentoring. In any company there’s usually a prescription for getting promoted, and to the extent you can articulate that in a useful way, you are being a good mentor. But there’s more to a person than career aspirations.
As a mentor, you need to understand where career fits into this person’s life. Is it the most important driver? Is it a means to provide for a family? Is there a longer-term goal? What drives this person? Is it a thirst and curiosity for knowledge? Is it gaining necessary experience to move into a different role? Getting a good understanding of the whole person helps you to better evaluate what happens at work. For instance, if you notice the person struggling for apparently no reason, asking how things are outside of work is usually a good first step.
Always keep in mind that your goal, as a mentor, is to help your mentees succeed in their professional life. Success can mean getting promoted, becoming a manager, or even working at a different company that is a better fit. Understanding more about the person than just the next step in their career is imperative.
Don’t give answers, provide strategies
Especially with technical mentoring, people will come to you with technical questions and it will be tempting to give them the answer. Don’t. People learn a lot better when they figure things out on their own. That doesn’t mean you stonewall when a question is asked. Instead of giving the answer, try to point them in the right direction by asking questions or suggesting other ways of approaching the problem. Some of the things I say frequently:
- Start from the top, what is the problem you are trying to solve?
- What would make this problem easier to solve?
- What alternatives have you looked at?
- Have you considered ______ or ______? Try looking them up and let me know what you think.
- Are there any easier ways to do the same thing?
For technical mentoring, these sort of questions end up turning into a repeatable strategy. No one needs me there to ask them these questions all the time, they are questions anyone can ask themselves when they stuck. Repeating questions like this when asked for help is at first an introduction and later a reminder of the way that they can solve problems on their own..
Non-technical questions can sometimes be easier in this regard, as there are frequently no clear-cut answers. Some of the items in my bag of tricks for non-technical issues:
- Encourage taking someone else’s point of view, especially when there are disagreements. What is their goal versus the goal of the person they’re disagreeing with?
- In contentious situations, what sort of outcome are they looking for?
- Share a story about a similar incident you dealt with, making sure to highlight that your approach may not be correct all the time.
Sometimes for younger mentees, it also helps to explain to them the roles of the people involved with a situation. Oftentimes, they won’t understand exactly what the product manager is trying to do or why the engineering manager is making a change. (Admittedly, sometimes even more experienced mentees still don’t understand the dynamics and relationships at play.)
The best thing you can do for a mentee is to give them homework. When they come to you with areas of interest or problems, point them in the direction of some authoritative work that can help them. These days there are no shortages of blog posts, articles, books, and talks that are freely available online on almost any topic you can imagine. Make sure to provide these on a regular basis. As all great teachers know, learning needs to be continued outside of the classroom for the teachings to sink in.
That also means you have to do a bit of research. If your mentee has a particular area of interest, it’s worth your time to research that area and see if you can find some good resources to share. Junior engineers, especially, can have a harder time discerning between advice from a random blog post and advice from an authoritative source. Your guidance and direction as it relates to outside sources is a key asset.
Don’t prevent all mistakes, just horrible ones
A common mistake I see when people start to mentor others is the need to prevent their mentees from making mistakes. This is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Your job as a mentor isn’t to prevent your mentees from making mistakes. On the contrary, you want them to make a certain class of mistakes so they can learn from them. Looking back over my career, I’m thankful for the mistakes I made because the lessons I learned really sunk in. Don’t deny your mentees that learning experience.
What you really must prevent are the atrocious mistakes, the ones that could severely impact the mentee’s career or the company as a whole. Your goal is to prevent career-threatening lapses in judgment. Fortunately, most people aren’t in a situation where they can really screw things up terribly – but some still find creative ways to do so.
If a mentee is headed in the wrong direction, it’s often a good idea to just keep an eye and let them trudge down the path until they realize the mistake. If, however, they are trudging right off a ledge, then it’s your job as a mentor to get in the way and turn them around.
Don’t try to create a you-clone
Another common mistake I see with new mentors is trying to get their mentees to think and act like them. Despite what our egos tell us, it is not beneficial to have two or more people who all think and reason in the exact same way. Creating a walking, talking clone of yourself is doing both you and your mentee a disservice. That is explicitly a non-goal of mentoring.
As a mentor, you want to help your mentee develop their own ideas and strategies. You want them to become fully-formed human beings capable of existing without direct guidance. You are there to lend insights from your experience and prevent horrible mistakes from happening, but otherwise you are there to guide their development into a more experienced version of themselves.
If a mentee solves a problem in a way that you wouldn’t have solved it, ask yourself if that will cause a catastrophe. Is it worse or just different? And if it is worse, how much worse? Is it an emergency or are we talking about a slight difference that will be hardly noticeable in any situation?
Unless you micromanage your mentee, there is no way that they will end up doing the exact same thing as you in every situation…and chances are that neither of you want that. Let them develop into their own career and guide them along that path. There’s already one of you, that’s enough.
Mentoring is important for career growth. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the mentors that guided me along the way. If you are a more experienced engineer, take the time to mentor someone who is more junior to you. It can be incredibly rewarding for both of you and helps to foster important interpersonal skills that don’t usually get exercised in the tech industry. Just remember, this type of relationship is different than that of a colleague or a manager-employee. Mentors are resources for their mentees, and you do the mentees a disservice if you don’t keep that in mind.
Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.