Mentoring is a buzz word in the hi-tech industry today. Junior and middle software specialists seek out mentorship for landing the next jobs and scaling at existing; for switchers it seems no-go without a mentor, and senior professionals and team leads are often judged on their ability to mentor others.
For many, it seems crystal clear that if you are looking for personal and/or professional growth, one of the most effective ways to develop is to find yourself a mentor. They can help you get a job, answer your tricky on-the-job questions, figure out your career path, guide you through a thorny work situation, or maybe even help land the next big thing.
Sounds pretty good, right? Especially all this gets relevant for a quickly evolving field of software development as at the rate that technology is changing it is critical to be on the ball.
Though, it goes a long way to remember that mentoring is not a magic wand or the kick in the pants that automatically creates success. The truth is that effective mentoring takes effort, relationships-building skills, and structure from both the mentor and the mentee.
Are you ready to become a mentee?
So, before the search for a great mentor, start with an honest self-reflection. Are you really ready to become a mentee? You are, only if you
1. Change your mindset. Stop thinking of mentorship as something you get and start thinking about it as something you do (according to Ryan Holiday, the author of Ego Is The Enemy). You, as a mentee, should also dedicate a lot of time and energy to be mentored successfully and effectively. If you look at mentorship as something you can only consume, you’ll fail for sure. The ‘taking-only’-mentality without giving more or the equivalent, is self-defeating in any relationship. Because why on earth someone respectable would spend their time, effort and mental energy to mentor a greedy, mean, egotistical, narrow-minded person like you? Altruism? Nope. Altruism is about helping someone worth being helped and not squandering time on a person who cannot get what all this is about or appreciate it.
What is it in for the mentor? You should think about this in the first place.
As successful busy professionals rarely take on serious commitments gratis, they can pick you only because they think you’re worth their time and will benefit them as well. Even if it’s just energy, you’re bringing, also if it’s just thanks or emotional satisfaction.
2. Outline your goals. You need to fully understand and ideally write down what you want from your mentor. Only you know what your goals, desires, dreams and aspirations are and what type of person can help you get there.
Besides, a person with vague or unclear goals is more easily influenced by mainstream causes and can pursue some trendy or shared thinking and decisions, which means the mentor’s efforts can go to the dogs. Unattractive perspective, isn’t it?
So, articulate clearly the “why” for yourself, and it will become a perfect groundwork for your future collaboration with a mentor and growth.
- Why you’re looking for a mentor
- Why you think they can help
- What you’re hoping to achieve
- What you’re ready to commit to
There is a saying, alternately attributed to Buddha “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
3. Mature. Your mentor is not someone to mother you. If you are too sensitive to feedback, too jumpy about instructions and opinions, fink out on commitments, so your brain is probably also too stuck in a silo, being unable to learn something different and differently.
And you would probably follow typical, infantile, irritating behaviour patterns like sending 3000-word emails, lame-excusing yourself. Or hiding a mistake you made because you’re scared. Quitting because you’ve fallen behind or don’t feel encouraged. Or arguing with feedback and thinking you know better, or that you’re special. Those weak emotions and reactions are a privilege of kids.
Excuses do not fly, people do not care about your personal life, and your pretext is irrelevant - the key things to remember if you bring yourself to finding a mentor. I do not mean here that you need to play the invulnerable or an almighty superman. No, everybody has flaws and can occasionally fail, just do qualitatively whatever you are asked to do, even if that means staying up all night or sacrificing momentary feel good for future accomplishments.
So if you want to indulge being mentored by somebody - then you grow up first, that’s the way it works. To quote Sheryl Sandberg: “We need to stop telling [young people], ‘Get a mentor and you will excel,’ Instead we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”
4. Redefine “Mentor”. Most people over-narrow the conception of who a mentor is. It’s generally believed to be an older, more successful person, able to take them under their wing and show them the way out.
But such a vision obliges a mentee to stay in the role of a nestling which neither flattering nor effective. This is not to discount the traditional view on mentorship but to broaden it, as occasionally the best mentor can be:
- Your peer. For example, if you are a software developer and advocate pair programming, which can often be beneficial for both parties, then somebody equal is the best choice.
- A person from another industry. A mentor shouldn’t be necessarily from your field, this is how you can learn how something works in different businesses and industries. And the main thing here not to start depreciating, thinking ‘No, it’s irrelevant, it’ll never work for me, my industry is different/special.’ The same field mentor may have tunnel vision on a career path or way out, and a person not familiar with your industry can get beyond and work with you more in coaching manner than in consulting, which may be more valuable.
- Many types of mentors at the same time. Trying to find the perfect mentor is a mission-impossible task, and this why many people give up on the way. But anyway, one person can’t give you all the mentorship that you need in your life. There are so many great people out there with an infinite number of skills and lessons to teach. Instead of trying to find a single all-know person, strive for variety.
5. Keep it fluid. Besides, finding a mentor doesn’t have an endgame. It’s a never-ending story, an ongoing process that requires checking your ego at the door. Your goals change, life situation changes, and it is ok if you give up on something that is not important or not working, and see that you need another type of mentorship at this point of life. Open your mind to new possibilities.
What’s with a mentor?
Actually, mentoring is not just advice-giving; otherwise, all your friends could be good mentors and your mother-in-law - the best one.
Mentorship is about responsibility and commitment to spend time, pay focused attention, share wisdom and know-how.
This is why you should also clearly understand what type of person would be helpful for you at this point in life. Of course, the devil is in the details, but still, there is a general list of a mentor’s must-be traits. Try to find someone who:
- Is someone you trust. Lack of trust clouds our society, but it is not possible to build a relationship without it - tired trope? Maybe, but otherwise, there could be no consent and confidentiality.
- Is radically candid. Feedback is the key to an impactful mentorship. Good mentors will always tell you that you are doing something wrong and even if this is Steve Job’s-your-work-is-shit style of feedback but this is the only way to excel. Mentors exist not to flatter you but to help you.
- Motivates you to do your best work possible. Imposter syndrome is a real thing. In those moments, what you need is someone who genuinely believes in you and wants you to realize your full potential. But motivate doesn’t equal to stroke your ego. It is more reminding about the meaning and the essence of what you are doing, or sometimes just listening to your frustrations.
- Has a growth mindset and learning attitude. There are no ‘know-it-all’ people. So, if you come across the one, better run:). Best teachers are curious learners themselves and look for ways to deepen their knowledge.
- Tells you not to be a carbon copy of him/herself. A good mentor must have the disposition and desire to develop others. And must want you not to pattern him or her after but want you to succeed in achieving your career goals.
It is all about the relationship
Although finding a mentor may seem like a daunting, I would say build the relationship with a mentor and making it work is even more challenging.
The mentor-mentee relationship must be managed and nurtured all the way. It is a joint venture that requires both parties to actively attend to its care and feeding. The chances of creating and sustaining a successful relationship increase if you manage expectations, in the first place.
There is probably nothing more important in any relationship than manage expectations. And here when people get constantly fail. It is hard to meet your commitments without it becoming a burden. 1:1 meetings are skipped, follow-ups not sent, promises not kept and relationship fade.
Both parties need to have a shared understanding of the relationship process and this means being on the same page about
- Contact and response times: Who contacts whom? How? In which cases?
- Meetings: Where, when, and how often?
- Confidentiality: What’s shareable and what isn’t?
- Focus: What are the parameters of the mentoring? What’s in and out of bounds?
- Feedback: What are the expectations around giving and receiving feedback?
- Goals and accountability: What would each party want from this experience? How does the mentee want the mentor to hold him/her accountable? How does the mentor want the mentee to hold him/her accountable?
Also, make sure you send your mentor(s) thank-you notes, especially after your mentee wins, and let them know how their advice is making an impact (mentors like to make a difference, it’s there reward in most cases).
So, as you may see, it all takes time and effort, but the game is well worth the candle for both parties.