Some Thoughts On Mentoring

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I’m lucky to have a large and broad network, internally and externally. Well, I say lucky. I work at it. I stay in touch, ping people to say hi, schedule lunches, arrange to meet up when I’m in the area, or they are in the area, ask how they are doing, take an interest in their achievements and lives.

Here, I wrote about different kinds of people who give helpful career perspectives, and I assembled a list of mentor and mentee tips (thanks to some wonderful people for suggestions).

Friends

I include friends here because: your mentors are not your friends. They are not the people you unload all your crazy on. But, it’s really good for you to have someone to unload your crazy on, talk to, vent. Even better if these people will give you some perspective. If you leave work in tears, you need to have someone you can call.

It’s good to build your network outside of the office too, because there are things that it can be hard to talk to someone who works at the same company about without legal ramifications. For example, someone who is sexually harassed may want to process it before taking it to HR, or not take it to HR at all (article on the failings of HR in the tech industry) but if someone who works with them knows, they may be legally obliged to do something about it (I am not a lawyer, but I have been told this is the case in Australia and the US).

It’s helpful to have internal people to talk to, because they have company context, although your colleagues are not your friends either. But I’ve found having work friends I hang out with outside of work is really beneficial – there are things that are just too much of a pain to discuss otherwise: “I’m working on this project, which I can tell you nothing about, and this guy working on this other project, which I also cannot reveal any details of, and I clashed about the meaning of this company priority, which I have to keep to myself”.

One of my friends in Sydney, we would vent to each other, and that was fine, but when the vent was over we’d challenge each other to take a positive action. It was really helpful – these kind of friendships are golden.

Benefits:

  1. Maximum context (the people you speak to most often, they’ll get the mostly irrelevant details you won’t bother other people with).
  2. On your side.

Watch out for:

  1. Especially if they are more senior to you, friend’s first, career advice second.
  2. They may not want to give you “tough love”, and might tell you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear.
  3. Dysfunctional friendship dynamics (e.g. being threatened by you succeeding).

Peer Mentoring

I have a peer mentoring group from a leadership course I took, we try and catch up roughly monthly, which is super helpful. This is the main place where I get the male perspective, as my network is pretty female-dominated.

There’s a certain amount of chit chat, but typically one or two of us have some pressing problem that they bring to the group to talk through and get some thoughts on. Pretty often we can make connections for one another, which is great.

Benefits:

  1. Variety of perspectives.
  2. Broadens network.

Watch out for:

  1. May not always have the experience to give good advice.
  2. Scheduling conflicts are hard.
  3. Time management – one hour session, 6 people = 10 minutes each if you start on time.

Role Models

I have a mentor who has the job that is medium term goal – Staff Software Engineer, not a manager (regular readers may have gathered that I lack the tact or emotional capacity to be a manager). I try to catch up with her roughly monthly, although this can be hard with timezones and schedules.

She’s amazing, she was the mentor who gave me this advice about Confidence. In general, I talk to her in some amount of depth about what the 1-2 biggest immediate challenges I’m facing, and she gives me some insight, and some encouragement.

Benefits:

  1. Inspiring: a relatable person, who career-wise is where I want to get but worry I won’t make it to. Getting to know her humanises her, makes it seem more possible.
  2. Less close, she’s also more likely to notice longer term trends – that I seem more confident lately, for example.
  3. Often overcame similar challenges, relatively recently.

Watch out for:

  1. They are awesome because they have a lot going on – be prepared to do the work to schedule with them.
  2. Time management: don’t ramble, give highlights.
  3. Not all advice is right for you, it’s not a silver bullet.

Oracles

This is the far away mentor, like one of my mentors is just way beyond where I ever hope or expect to be. She is seriously amazing, and seriously successful. I catch up with her maybe quarterly, and I’m careful to be super respectful of her time (this quarter I know she’s extra busy and I’m pretty happy, so I will just send her a highlights email).

Her, I ask the high levels questions of and then use her answers to guide me for the next couple of months. So when I was deciding what to work on in London, I ran my decision by her, and got her thoughts on that and some general advice for things to do to when starting on a new team. At the end of last quarter, I talked to her about things I was focusing on over the next few months, and how to demonstrate I’m at the next level. I’ve also had really helpful conversations with her about things like how to deal with engineer arguments, casual undermining, being ignored etc. She’s great at cutting to the core of the problem and giving me a heuristic to use.

Benefits:

  1. Career visionary (think like, Product Visionary) – great for the big picture.
  2. Again, longer term trends. She was the first person to notice how much more confident I am since I moved, “I think you learned more last year than you realise… [key achievement], that took confidence”.
  3. Can open other doors: get you into programs (this is how I got my other mentor).

Watch out for:

  1. Very little time, make sure you plan in advance, no emergencies.
  2. No time to understand your day to day, make questions strategic.
  3. Can be too removed from where you are.
  4. Don’t ask them for too much: time, favours, whatever.

Specialists

I’ve written before about my experiences with getting coaching for public speaking (1, 2) – this has been super helpful to me. A long time ago now, I also hired a professional to create my resume. Mentors give general advice, but sometimes we have a specific task that could benefit from specialist help. You can find that online, and you can find people who offer that as a service.

I think it’s often helpful to allocate money, not just goodwill to building your confidence and skills.

Aside from that, there are people in my network who encourage me just on certain axes. For example, a friend who pings me CFPs (thanks Chiuki!), and who recommended me to speak at a conference (2 of my 6 talks this year wouldn’t have happened without her).

You don’t have to have your One And Only Mentor, you can have different people you turn to for different aspects of your career. And some of them you my also pay.

Benefits:

  1. More in-depth expertise on specific things.
  2. Fresh perspective.

Watch out for:

  1. Lots of people offering various kinds of coaching online, make sure you determine who is a good fit for you (personal recommendations are good, or the writers of blogs you love).
  2. Can lack context on your field.

Sponsors

Anne-Marie and I wrote about how we think Sponsors are an answer to bad managers in the tech industry. A sponsor is someone who advocates for you and helps you get that next project, or opportunity.

Whilst sometimes you can sign up to be mentored, that is not the case for sponsorship. Sponsors you have to find, and cultivate. Look to work more closely with the person who is most supportive of you, highlight your achievements to them (not in an annoying way), and if they do anything for you appreciate it. They used their reputation to help you, that is an amazing gift.

When I think about the difference in my job now, versus my job a year ago, sponsors made all the difference. It’s transformational.

Benefits:

  1. Biggest career-impact.
  2. Best way for women to get ahead.

Watch out for:

  1. Resentment from peers.
  2. Focus on bringing them your achievements, not your problems (if they are not also a mentor or friend).

Being A Mentor

I think the best way to get people to want to help you, is to demonstrate that you are the kind of person who pays it forward. I know that me writing a blog for example, and being open about my experiences, makes more people keen to help me.

Also, I wholeheartedly subscribe to Madeleine Albright’s “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I think mentoring can be a formal thing, but it can also just be a relationships you build, where over time someone reaches out to you, and you reach back. Even in the case of the more formal relationship, the mentee needs to keep reaching out to build it. Someone doesn’t care about your wellbeing because they got allocated to you, they care about your wellbeing because they get to know you.

I put the lists below together from my own thoughts and some helpful tweets from @skamille, @jewelia and @knitterjp (thanks!) and from this storify of what looks like an amazing panel (thanks @lccarson for the hattip).

Being a good mentor:

  1. Make it clear you want to make time for them.
  2. Let them know what schedule you have time for.
  3. Don’t dismiss their concerns; listen.
  4. Sometimes people take a while to warm up, ask questions (I once thought that someone didn’t really need to talk to me at all, but the actual concern came up at about 20 minutes. She just needed more time).
  5. When you can do more than mentor, sponsor (e.g. help find that intern her next project, promote their work).
  6. When someone reaches out (e.g. friendly email, question buried within it) respond.
  7. Ask questions that get mentee to address broader context and consequences.
  8. Be open about failure; those stories are more useful than those of success.
  9. Praise, showcase their achievements, be encouraging.

Being a good mentee:

  1. Expect to be the person who reaches out, and schedules.
  2. Don’t take it personally if they are busy.
  3. Ask what frequency and format they prefer (Walking meeting? Times of day? I schedule as much as possible over lunch, because Efficiency).
  4. Be respectful of their time.
  5. Take notes! This will help you retain the conversation.
  6. Come with concrete points to discuss. Get to them quickly.
  7. Take anything with a grain of salt. The more senior you are, the more this is necessary (if you are super junior, the advice is easier and the situations are less unique than the junior person thinks they are).
  8. Say thank-you. Send follow up notes if their advice was particularly helpful.
  9. No blame if their advice sucked, you are responsible for what you do.
  10. Don’t expect miracles. Mentors aren’t coaches. They can’t hold you accountable, only you can do that for yourself.
  11. Look for ways where you can also be helpful (information, introductions).
  12. If they do you a favour (e.g.introduction) follow up! Follow up on the favour, and let your mentor know that you did.
  13. Don’t ask “will you be my mentor”, build a relationship based on shared interests, ask for specific advice. “I’d love to chat to you about X” is much lower key than asking for an ongoing relationship up front.

Both:

  1. Be fully present in your interactions.
  2. Show up on time.

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