Career management

I’m a Terrible Mentor: Here’s Why

Credit: Flickr / Daniela Brown
Credit: Flickr / Daniela Brown

I hate mentoring and I don’t want to do it. This is mainly a product of me hating three things.

  • One-directional relationships.
  • Other people’s priorities not my own.
  • Giving advice.

One-directional relationships are so exhausting, because you can’t really be open. Being a manager has – oh the irony – made me less open to mentoring people not on my team, because those kind of relationships are inherently unbalanced, and the kind of energy I have for that goes to engineers who report to me. There’s not really much left for other people. But in general I don’t like to have unbalanced relationships. I don’t like people to ask me for things, that I can’t ask for in return. I don’t like people to expect stuff from me that they don’t offer. This makes me a great person to be friends with. And a really reluctant mentor.

I hate mentoring in much the same way I hate email. Because it’s something that arrives that you have to deal with (or not) and it’s driven by other people, not by what I want to do. Because it’s an appointment on my calendar to prioritise someone else and I already have too many of those.

I hate giving advice, and I particularly hate giving advice without context. It’s a lot of work to get that context. For instance, if I give someone on my team advice, it’s typically something I’ve spent ~2 weeks observing and thinking about. Contrast mentoring, if I spent an hour talking to someone and as a result was able to give them one useful piece of information, that would actually be good. But it’s very low ROI on an hour of my time.

This assumes that a would-be mentee has an actual problem that I can help with which is far from a given. We need to stop selling people – women – this idea of mentoring as the answer to navigating a career. A mentor is not a therapist. Or a coach. They cannot replace your shitty manager or even really mitigate the damage he does. They cannot help you with the psychological consequences of going home every day in tears. They cannot give you certainty in a situation where there is none.

I totally understand being in a situation where you just need to talk, but this is not a job for your “mentor”, it’s a job for your friend or a paid professional. A friend is much more likely to call you on your shit than a mentor. Your mentor, if they conclude you’re not actually going to do anything other than complain on the regular is liable to ghost.

For mentoring to be actually useful, you need to know who you are and what you want. You need to have met your core needs (therapy! I can’t recommend it enough!) and then you can ask specific questions and get actual helpful information in return. Or even better, practical help.

My friend Camille and I recorded an improptu one-time-only podcast where we discussed some of these topics.

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