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Be an Approachable and Empowering Mentor

ameseee profile image Amy Holt ・4 min read

While these thoughts are frequently running through my head when I teach, pair, and observe others do the same, the 9th trait of a 10x engineer in the recent shit-storm motivated me to collect these ideas and get them out. If you missed it:

I think engineers, junior to senior, should be able to mentor and teach others. Mentoring and teaching require skills that we aren't just born with, and may not feel so natural for some folks. But that's ok - it's learnable!

What is a Mentor?

For the context of this blog post, I'll use the term mentor to describe anyone who is...

  • serving as an official mentor
  • a more senior engineer teaching something they have more expertise in
  • a less senior engineer teaching something they have more expertise in
  • co-worker or classmate teaching something they have more expertise in
  • educators

So, anyone who shares their knowledge with anyone else!

Why is this Important?

The way mentoring interactions feel for the mentee can hugely determine the trust they have in their mentor, whether they feel valued, and their confidence and happiness in that space. A negative mentorship experience can lead a mentee to feel discouraged, frustrated, and like they are alone in their professional growth. On the other hand, a positive mentorship experience can make a mentee feel confident, valuable, and empowered to continue growing and collaborating!

How Do You Do It?

There is no silver bullet. It takes work and thoughtfulness. Some of the things we say and do that might be leading to us not be approachable or empowering are deeply engrained into our daily language. Those are habits that we have the power to change!

Check Your Vocabulary

Consider the following words:

  • just
  • simple
  • easy

All three of these words are harmless and perfectly acceptable to use in the workplace. But when a person hears them over and over, in reference to something that is complex and new to them, it adds up and can contribute to that imposter syndrome, as well as the approachability of the person using those words.

True Story: Last week, I advised a new student to refactor a lengthy function. They asked how they would go about it, and I said "Just pass that function an argument of whateverItWas". To me it may be "just passing an argument", but to my student, at that moment, that meant about nothing. I immediately backed myself up and we worked through it together, but I can't undo my use of that word and the impact it may have had.

Similarly, something that currently seems "easy" or "simple" to you may not be for your mentee. Removing some of these oh-so-engrained words from your vocabulary could make a huge impact for your mentees experience and your approachability.

Remove Assumptions

"We all know how to _______, right?"

How does that feel for the person who doesn't know how to _______?

  • They now might be questioning if they are ready to learn what you're about to talk about.
  • They may be wondering if they are the only person who doesn't know _______.

In this scenario, the mentor just assumed the mentee did know that concept, therefore sent the message that they should know it. It's was probably the mentor's intention to create a transition from something the mentee likely has previous knowledge about so they have some context for the concept they're about to discuss. Keyword: likely. Instead of assuming, let's ask them! It might take 30 more seconds, but they payoff will be your mentee feeling empowered going into this new topic!

Another way to spin it:

  • "Are you familiar with _______?"
  • "Before we dive into this, tell me what you know about _______."

This provides the mentee the opportunity to articulate their understanding and be part of the conversation. If that answer uncovers a misconception of lack of essential prior knowledge, the mentor know has this information and can fill in the gaps before moving on.

Hands Off Their Keyboard

Unless you are driving and they are navigating, just don't do it.

If they are having trouble understanding what you are trying to have them do, you can white board it, you can back up and go character by character. Whatever you do, don't touch their keyboard. That moment someone realize they are "too slow" or just "don't know enough" for the mentor in front of you can be heartbreaking. It can also be really infuriating when a mentor writes code that the mentee don't understand.

We aren't mentoring code, we are mentoring people. If you want to teach someone to fish, you don't just bring them a bucket of fish. Don't fish for your mentee.

And if the reasons above aren't compelling enough, the germs on someone else's keyboard should be.

Wrap Up

Not sure how much these tips apply to you? Take the next week to keep track of what you say/do. Jot down a tally mark every time you say "easy" or go for someone else's keyboard. If you realize it is something you need to work on, work on it! Tell a co-worker and ask them to hold you accountable. Or be straightforward about it with a mentee so they can also help you in your journey. Your mentees will appreciate you for it 💖

Discussion (1)

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jeantiston profile image
Jean Tiston

This is such a good read about the topic of mentorship. Being conscious of the vocabulary we use is such a subtle detail but it really impacts the way people think especially if that person looks up to you.

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