A short guide to mentoring: why it's useful, why you should be doing it, and how to find your own mentee
When people accept awards they tend to thank a few sets of people every time: friends and family, colleagues, people who gave them the opportunities that led to winning the award, and their mentors.
Whether it’s a teacher they had years ago, or a more senior colleague who took time out of their day to show them the ropes and help them improve, mentorship sticks with us long after the relationship has ended.
We remember those relationships because they change us.
Mentorship provides a safe, trusting environment for us to learn, improve our skills, and—perhaps most importantly—ask questions.
I haven’t found a type of learning that increases my knowledge and improves my skills and output as quickly as mentorship. Having someone around who can answer my questions and help me fix my mistakes is an invaluable resource.
Mentorship provides a safe, trusting environment for us to learn, improve our skills, and ask questions.
But when you’ve never mentored someone before, it can be hard to know where to get started. And for many of us, the thought of portraying ourselves as knowledgeable enough to mentor someone else stops us even considering the idea.
But you probably have much more to offer as a mentor than you think. And you might be surprised to find that you benefit from the experience as much as your mentee.
Benefits of mentoring
Some workplaces have mentoring opportunities built-in. This is what Barbara Kotlyar from SmartBear.com calls formal mentoring. If there’s a buddy system at your work where you’re paired with a new employee to show them the ropes, that’s formal mentoring.
Natural mentoring, on the other hand, happens organically as part of your workflow. This is when you happen to get along well with a new employee and take them under your wing while they’re learning. Or when you’re paired with a less experienced team member on a project, and you share your knowledge and experience with them as you work together.
According to Kotlyar, this is the most beneficial kind of mentoring:
People adopt lessons faster when they are applied every day.
It doesn’t mean formal mentoring isn’t useful, though. When Sun Microsystems implemented a mentorship program, tracking about 1,000 employees at Sun over five years showed the mentees were promoted five times more often than those who didn’t receive mentoring.
And it wasn’t only mentees that benefitted. Mentors were six times more likely to be promoted than colleagues who didn’t participate in the program. Not only that, but both mentees and mentors were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise. And here again, mentors fared even better than mentees: 28% of mentors, and 25% of mentees were given a raise.
So mentoring makes sense for everyone involved. But it doesn’t only apply in the context of colleagues. Christian Reber, CEO and co-founder of 6Wunderkinder (the company behind Wunderlist) says “Mentors became crucial for me” while building Wunderlist.
Reber still relies on mentors to provide advice these days:
Every time we’re not quite sure about the next step we should take, we ask for advice.
Reber says mentors can provide you with perspectives you wouldn’t have otherwise, and that without his early mentors, Wunderlist simply wouldn’t exist.
Mentors are a great way of widening your horizon when you start a business, and I believe every founder should have one or more.
Rachel Ober, a senior developer at Paperless Post, has been mentoring for years. She says mentoring is a two-way street where everyone benefits.
Mentors often learn new things from their mentees, she says, who spend more time learning than you do if you’re more experienced.
Of course, mentees learn a lot, but they can also gain confidence and improve their skills from a mentoring relationship.
For those who aren’t sure they’re ready to be mentors
Ober says it’s common to think you have nothing to offer as a mentor, but this is often tied to imposter syndrome.
Even if you’re not sure about mentoring someone to improve their skills, Ober says your everyday experience can be beneficial—especially to someone starting out. She says she’s often found her mentees want to know about her typical day at work, or what to expect from a job interview.
If someone is starting their career from scratch, she says, you can offer guidance and knowledge about what to expect. It doesn’t matter what you think about your own skills—just share your experience.
Ober also says sharing your weaknesses builds trust and helps your mentee develop confidence. It’s okay to say you don’t know something, she says, and it can make your mentee feel better to know their mentor is not infallible.
Setting up a successful relationship with your mentee
Suppose you’re now ready to get started mentoring someone for the first time. What should you keep in mind?
Start by setting goals for your relationship
Ober suggests agreeing on goals and parameters early on, so you’re both on the same page about your relationship. Figure out whether your mentee wants specific skill-based help, or more general guidance about their career moves, says Ober.
She also suggests agreeing on parameters like when and where you’ll meet, how often and for how long.
Reduce the feedback cycle
Ober suggests meeting regularly, so you can continue guiding your mentee along the right path. If you set them up and leave them alone for too long, she says, they could waste time and energy going down the wrong path. It’s important to keep steering them back in the right direction as they progress, she says.
Don’t assume knowledge
When moving on to something new, Ober suggests always checking if they know about it. Talking over your mentee’s head won’t benefit either of you—you’ll be wasting your time, and they won’t be learning. Over time they’ll get used to you asking what they know, though Ober says at first you may need to push through the awkwardness of always checking their knowledge.
Don’t touch their keyboard
Developers on StackExchange have debated whether you should tell your mentee how to do something or help them figure it out for themselves, but they agree on one thing: you shouldn’t do it for them. Whether your equipment is a keyboard, a pen, or a shovel, let your mentee do the work so they can experience what it feels like to do something the right way.
One final note I should cover: where to find a mentee. You may come across potential mentees at work, whether through a formal mentoring program organized by your company, or through natural mentoring.
But if you don’t have anyone to mentor at work, one option is to volunteer to help out with training programs. Bootcamps, code schools, or training organizations tend to leave students hungry to learn more, or even look for their first job in a new field. These students usually won’t have a big network to draw on when looking for a mentor, and will have lots of questions about starting out in a new career, and how to improve their skills.
Ober says she’s been able to mentor students from the Turing School in Colorado, even though she’s in New York, using tools like Google Hangouts. Ask your local code school, training bootcamp, or short course organization if they could use volunteers during courses. Once you’ve met some students, you’ll be able to offer mentoring to those who need it.