I am a big believer in the value of mentorship, both providing and receiving. As a mentor I have found that it has frequently helped me clarify my thinking on a number of topics, and crystallize some of the ideas and ways of doing things which have worked for me (or not) throughout my career. As people talk about the challenges that they are facing or ask about how I approached a challenge I’ve faced, I must synthesize a response that I can explain succinctly and clearly. That synthesizing process compels me to take the set of swirling partially-formed thoughts and experiences and try to tidy them up, smooth the rough edges on them, and try to deliver them in a way that will be understandable and thought provoking. In the process, they become more complete models of thinking which I can share further with others and become much more useful to me personally as well. For every topic which someone might look to me for advice, I’m in fact still continuing to learn and develop myself. Getting my thoughts organized so I can share them with others helps me with my learning too, since I’ll see any gaps or naivete in my own thinking.
Recently I had the experience of several people asking me for advice on how to find a great mentor, and how to get the most out of a mentoring relationship. This made me think more deeply about how I’ve approached this myself and what has worked, or that I’ve observed work, over the years and the 4 mentorship archetypes that I would encourage people to try to find for themselves.
Before talking more about the kind of mentorship I encourage people to find, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the importance of having the right mindset to get the most out of any mentoring relationship.
A few times a year, someone will ask me for some time to provide mentorship. In the first meeting I always ask what they are hoping to get out of the time. What are they finding challenging and how can I help them? For some people, it’s clear that what they want to do with the time is tell me how amazing and accomplished they are. When I ask follow-up questions to figure out what skill they are trying to develop, sometimes they will deflect and want to spend more time on the things they do well. It’s as if they mostly want to hear positive reinforcement on the things they already know how to do, rather than tackle the harder conversation to expose and discuss the things they know they are not doing well. Usually I will ask these people to do some homework:
- Write down the top 10 most important skills or practices that you need to do well to be great at your job.
- Carry a small notebook with you for 1 month, and after each significant chunk of your day (meetings, blocks of solo work time, team activities) log which of the 10 skills you used, and how well you did them (e.g. on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is “down in flames” and 5 is “crazy awesome”)
- At the end of the month, reflect on your log to see where you need to invest some amount of energy to develop yourself, either because you didn’t use some set of important skills or because you weren’t as proficient as you wanted to be.
This homework provides two benefits in my experience. It helps the mentee to decide what is the most useful focus area for the mentorship discussions, allowing them to get the most out of the time. More importantly though, it breaks people out of the mindset of trying to prove that they are great and puts them into a learning mindset where they are open and seeking feedback and insight. (I have had this exercise backfire once, where the person came back and told me that he was 5 out of 5 in everything he did so he didn’t actually need mentorship after all.) The other realization that it can drive for some people is that it isn’t necessarily a skill or capability that they need help with, it’s the emotions that come along with doing the work. The frustration of interpersonal politics or the despair that can come in the middle of trying to push a large complex project forward can themselves be what one needs a mentor to cope with. This is where the first mentor archetype comes in.
As engineers working on technology projects, we can often discount the emotional side of the work. We expect pure logic and reason to be the orders of the day, and for many of us the beauty of mathematics and the logic of programming are what drew us to the field in the first place. But humans are messy, irrational, and often hostage to their own egos. If you are working on a project with other humans you will have to navigate those situations where logic and reason are forced to contend with personal agendas, jealousy, pettiness, empire building, and “not invented here” resistance. Even the most skilled person, as she navigates these situations, may feel the personal drain and frustration that accompanies it. Finding a mentor who can act as an emotional counsel can be hugely beneficial. They will often help you process the situation, see things from different perspectives, and help you rediscover why the outcome is worth the effort to get there. This type of mentor will usually take a very Socratic approach to conversations, letting you do most of the talking and asking questions that are intended to help you process and reach your own conclusions. If you are in the market for a mentor of this type, remember to look for people who are extremely discrete and high integrity, since you’ll be sharing more personal details than with other types of mentors. Julie Larson Green, my former boss and longtime mentor was the best psychologist-type mentor I’ve worked with. She always seemed to ask the best questions to help me overcome my frustration at any situation and turn it around so that I was motivated to go get the right result. And she always seemed to be on my side, even when she was telling me that I probably missed something from another perspective.
The Role Model
The second mentor archetype is probably the one most people think of when they hear the word “mentor.” The role model type mentor is someone who is doing the job you want in a way that you admire. Getting mentorship time with a person like this is all about identifying the skills and expertise for which you will need to be proficient in order to get to that position someday, and do the job well. Mentorship sessions with role model type mentors will typically be the inverse of the psychologist type. They will do most of the talking. You will ask clarifying questions and seed questions on topics for which you want them to share their knowledge. Your time with them is most valuably spent listening and gaining insights. Finding a perfect role model is usually very hard to do, and mentor candidates will likely have some attributes that you really admire and some attributes that you don’t. If you hold out waiting for a perfect role model mentor you’ll miss out on some good learning opportunities, so I usually suggest that you just go in with eyes wide open and focus your time with them on the attributes that you want to learn about and gently steer clear of the others. I’ve seen sometimes where a mentee tried a bit too hard to emulate a role model mentor and wound up exchanging good habits for the bad habits that they saw modeled. Years ago, a peer of mine started getting mentoring from a senior engineer who was a technical powerhouse but also notoriously derisive in how he treated others. My peer transformed from a good-natured collaborator into a cynical finger-pointer as he internalized both the productive and unproductive lessons from the senior engineer.
One of the most valuable kinds of mentorship can be a coaching type relationship where you can have very high bandwidth conversations about a particular skill you are developing. Usually this works best with a person who works closely with you, has a solid understanding of the work that you do, and the opportunity to actually watch you in action. The mentoring discussions tend to be a lot of back-and-forth talking about things that you both observed first-hand and what worked well or could have been done better. Most people will probably get this kind of mentorship from their direct manager, but it can be incredibly valuable to find another person that you can trust to mentor you in this way as well. There are two very important things to do to get the most benefit from this type of mentorship:
- Explicitly give permission to that person to give you feedback. For the most part, people try to be nice and spare your feelings, so giving critical feedback can feel to them like they are being nitpicky or negative. If you just ran a great project or code review, the person pointing out that you could have done something to make it even better can feel like a jerk – unless you have already had the conversation with them ahead of time explicitly giving them permission and asking them to be critical.
- Get feedback quickly after the activity for which you want coaching. Feedback is like fruit, it’s great when it’s fresh and goes all soft and mushy as it ages. If you want clear, actionable, insights on how you showed up in a particular situation make sure the feedback is fresh.
I’ve been very lucky to have some great peers to work with who acted in the coach type mentor role for me. Michael Fortin was my partner for many years (and later my boss) as we led the efforts to improve the quality of Windows after Vista. We developed a rhythm where we frequently met up at the end of the day to discuss what happened with the team. We had both told each other to pull no punches on feedback, and often had small criticisms or observations of things the other could have done better. Because I had given him permission and asked explicitly for that feedback, when it was given it was welcomed with as little defensiveness as I could muster, and I credit Mike as the catalyst for a huge amount of my personal development and learning as a result.
The $5 Mentor
We each are amazing at something. We each have some skill or attribute that others admire and wonder how we learned it. I often talk about people having “tools in their toolbelt” that help them be successful in their jobs. When we start our careers we may only have a few basic tools, but as we gain proficiency we add new tools and upgrade the ones we have. One often overlooked kind of mentorship is something that I call “The $5 Mentor”. What I mean is that you can spend 5 bucks and get some incredibly useful mentoring on a specific tool that you want to acquire or improve. Here’s how:
- Look around, and find the person who you think is AMAZING at that skill
- Buy that person a coffee (or a beer, or a smoothie, or a sandwich, or…) and ask them to spend 30 minutes telling you how they do it
In the many dozens of times that I’ve done this, no one has ever refused. I don’t think that it’s the free coffee… I think it is because most people who are great at a skill are very willing to be generous with their time and help others be great at it too. In fact, for many of these folks, that one coffee developed into many hours of talking, peer coaching, and philosophizing about how to develop even further.
Pick one, any one. Or two. Or four.
I am often surprised by how many people that I talk to that have no mentor or mentee relationships. They are missing out on so much I think! The number one reason that I hear from people that they don’t have a mentor is that it is too hard to find one. I will sometimes joke that I can find them a mentor in less than 2 minutes. I ask them what skill they wish they were better at. Then I ask who they think is great at it. It only takes a moment for it to click – they don’t need a perfect mentor that can do everything, they can start by just reaching out to learn a single skill from a single person. It doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship, it can be just a cup of coffee.
Finding a great psychologist, role model, or coach type mentor can be tougher and may come with some trial and error, but if you look for mentors who fit those archetypes and get the most out of what they each have to offer you may find that the answer isn’t to have one idealized do-it-all mentor, it’s to have a variety of mentoring relationships with multiple going on at any given time.