This is the first part of the three-part series about mentorship. We are going to cover:
- why being a mentor is tough,
- why it is rewarding,
- concrete advice on leveling up your mentorship skills.
I’ve never stopped having a mentor. For 7 years now, different people mentored me in different roles. It started with programming, then architectural design, then project and team management. One constant mentorship was on communication and empathy.
For me, mentorship is not about teaching someone algorithms, recommending the "right books", or giving them tasks to solve. It is about guiding individuals to achieve their full potential, being there for them and being honest with them.
Somewhere in my second year, I was solving problems with real significance for the company. That meant tackling a lot of new problems about which I knew little. I pestered my mentor with new questions every 10-15 minutes until at some point he introduced a 10-minute time window of every hour when I could ask questions. I stopped with the questions in a matter of weeks.
Looking back now when I’m facing the same mentorship challenge, this was a genius way to force me to become independent and improve my googling skills. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t understand this intent and would feel discarded.
The intent was good, but the execution was only partially successful.
In my 7 years, I’ve been a mentor for around 5, teaching different people different things. My understanding of the mentor role has changed a lot through time, changing the way I teach, give advice, and communicate.
The story from before is a great example. Mentorship can easily chip away 10%-20% of your time, depending on the mentorship setup. This time is spent on providing guidance and support, discussing ideas, giving constructive criticisms, and challenging your mentoree just the right amount.
But investing time is critical for the success of both mentor and mentoree. It is the only way to develop a real, tangible relationship.
As a mentoree, I really appreciate the ability to ask my mentors for help at any time, although it might be a very busy day or a Sunday afternoon. That’s why, although I sometimes have a bunch of important and/or urgent things to do, I will always try to take the time to listen to my mentorees and be there for them.
I try to instill the question “Why?” into my mentorees. They need to understand why something is important enough to do, why now, why them. This is not easy to do for anyone, especially for newer employees. They are not here to “complete tasks”, but to solve problems. I give them more responsibility, owning features, projects, being mentors themselves. They are constantly challenged to grow.
Growing includes failing. As a mentor, this is sometimes hard for me to take in. It is easy to forget how hard those same problems were for me when I was starting out. Especially when those same people successfully solved similar or harder problems. This is true for programming as much as it is for communication, time estimations, cooperation, and everything else.
The important thing for me to understand in those situations is how they saw the situation. Most likely they were missing some key information that would complete the picture. Once I understand the cause, we both can learn something and move forward, no big deal.
To best help someone, I always try to be honest and give direct feedback in form of constructive criticism. It is very important not to “assume” I’m right and start with the things I’ve noticed and how I feel. I expect the same in return. Disclaimer – I’m not a person that can easily talk about feelings and directly confront people. After years of practice, it is still a conscious effort.
Although this is very effective and I still haven’t had a single bad experience, it is very uncomfortable and can be nerve-wracking. But that is the reason more to do it – it helps build meaningful relationships based on honesty and transparency.
I remember having to let go one of my mentorees. The fact that we’ve built a relationship based on honesty helped us part ways without anyone holding a grudge, but I was still sad. I’ve invested a lot of time in him, and we built a friendly rapport, but this just wasn’t a place for him.
Most relationships have to come to an end at some point. But as the cliche says, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. People we mentor have a mind of their own and will do things we don’t agree with. This will lead to heartbreak, and that will feel painful until we embrace that it is part of the process.
Mentoship is about people. The real problems you face will never be about the right algorithm or the right approach. It might seem like it is, but there is usually something deeper. It could be problems with honesty or trust, you could be frustrated or heart-broken, and too shy to talk about your current mental state. And all that will take a lot of time to improve.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort!
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