Mentoring and being mentored

I believe that it’s key to both have mentors, and to mentor others – in life. Since this has come up recently, I wanted to write down my opinions on this matter, from both perspectives. I’ve had the humbling experience of being both a mentor and a mentee, and through each type of relationship, I’ve learned a lot.

What is a mentor?
A mentor is often someone who is older than you and/or has more experience than you, in a field where you want to excel. If you can find someone like this, it’s a valuable thing – but it’s also rare. So, what do you do? Well, a mentor can and ideally should be someone who “already knows the answers”, but they don’t have to be. A mentor can also just be a wise person you know. Often, a mentor helps most when they ask the right questions, and YOU figure out the answer.

Either way, a mentor is someone who can help you excel. More commonly, a mentor can simply be a person who’s opinion you value, who can give intelligent insight from a different perspective.

What is a mentor NOT?
If you ask someone to take time out of their day to help you, you should be very humbled and appreciative of their time. You should not really “dump” on your mentor with your problems, nor complain aimlessly. Your mentor is there to help answer questions and help you excel. Make concentrated use of their time! They are not the right person to just “chit-chat” with, or carry on with everyday stories.

What I mean is, a mentor relationship is typically “formal” – in that, there is an agreement in place. The mentor likely has a lot on their plate – be respectful of their time. Don’t bother them with questions that you could otherwise Google. Be concise. Be thoughtful about the time you ask of them.

Finding a mentor
How do you find a mentor? Well, you would typically start in your circle of acquaintances. Is there anyone you know that is already where you want to be? That’s ideal. You have a person who already knows you, and with whom you already have a rapport.

Failing that, do you have someone in your life who is smart and willing to help people? If so, these are often just as good. Someone like this may not be able to guide you as much, but they often ask the right questions, and can help you work out a problem – or help figure out the path.

It also doesn’t hurt to simply put the word out that you are looking for a mentor. If you work for a large company, there are likely mentorship programs, or perhaps if you’ve spread the word – a mentor will seek you out.

Interviewing/applying for a mentorship
What do I mean “interview”, or “apply”? Well, if you want someone to take time out of their day to help you, the first thing you should do is let them know you are dead serious. In fact, I would start with this:

  • Get/update your resume. Present it to your potential mentor like you are applying for a job. Make the case of why they should invest in you.
  • Ask them for an appointment, a time to meet where you can make your case. Be on time or early to that appointment. If you are even a minute late, you should consider that opportunity, lost. Don’t be late!
  • If you work in IT, have a blog. If you don’t even blog about what you are doing for professional development, you probably don’t need a mentor! A mentor isn’t going to help you START helping yourself, a mentor is going to give you guidance and opinions as you drive your OWN career. You should already be self-motivated. It’s not your mentors job to motivate you. If you don’t believe in blogging, here are 6 reasons why every professional should have a blog.
  • On the day of the appointment, if it’s in-person – then:
    • Dress like you are going to an interview
    • Have clean clothes and excellent personal hygiene. This includes wearing deodorant, and having fresh breath.
  • Be prepared; Have talking points about:
    • Your history/resume
    • What you want to get out of the mentorship / professional goals
    • What you are asking of the mentor, specifically
    • A proposed schedule and plan. For example, weekly meetings on Thursday mornings at 9am, for 6 months. At that point, you’ll re-evaluate/renew the mentorship.
    • Make it as easy as possible for your mentor; work around their terms/their schedule

What does all of this say? Well, what would you think if you were approached this way?

It says to me that this person is serious; they are already doing professional development; they are looking for outside guidance and opinions on their profession.  If the mentor doesn’t or can’t give you an answer right then and there, ask when you might follow-up and ACTUALLY follow-up. Again, treat this like a job interview.

You are asking this person to invest time and energy into you – make a compelling case!

Being a mentee
Here is the hard part. So, let’s say you found a mentor. What are your responsibilities? You have this person who is taking time out of his/her day to help you, what should you do in return for their investment?

  • Act like a professional.
    • Honor your commitments.
    • Don’t use inappropriate language or slang.
    • Say what you mean and mean what you say. Follow-through on every commitment. If you can’t commit, then say so.
    • Be consistent.
    • Don’t be tardy. If you must be late to a meeting, call/text/e-mail as soon as you know you’ll be late. Being even 2 minutes late makes a significant statement. Just be on-time.
  • For in-person meetings, have excellent personal hygiene.
    • Don’t have body odor of any sort.
    • Have fresh breath. Ask your friends if you have halitosis; if you do, then be aware of it and address it. At the very least, carry some tic-tacs or Altoids and pop one in before your meeting. Use a mint, chewing gum is distracting.
  • Do every thing/try every thing your mentor tells you to do. (so long as it’s legal and moral)
  • Even if you disagree, respect the mentor’s opinion and show gratitude.
  • Be respectful of your mentor’s time.
    • Come up with a list of talking points for every meeting.
    • Have a specific list of questions.
    • If you are done early, then end the meeting early.
    • If you don’t have a need to meet that week, cancel the meeting well in advance.
    • Don’t be late, ever. Be early or be on time. If you are going to be late, notify your mentor as soon as you possibly can.
    • Don’t constantly barrage your mentor with questions, during the week. Batch them up, and when you have several, then ask. If it can wait until your weekly meet – then ask them there.
  • Periodically see if there is anything you can do for your mentor. See if there is any way for you to invest in them.

This should make it so you get the most out of the relationship, and it’s also sustainable for your mentor.

Finding mentees
Even if you are still in college, you can certainly mentor others – and you should, every reasonable chance that you can. You should be a mentor for a few reasons:

  • It helps hone your communication skills. You often might need to give a controversial opinion to your mentee, which might offend them. This forces you to communicate effectively and respectfully.
  • It helps you get better at training – particularly if you do know more in the relationship. Slowing down to teach a subject is different then simply using the technology. This forces you to be an empathetic listener, which makes you more effective at teaching.
  • It helps expand your patience. If you are working with someone who is learning, not “getting” it, or has other “issues”, this forces you to become more patient.

So, you could look within your sphere of acquaintances, and ask someone that you think you could help. However, you might very well find people who are not committed. It’d be much more ideal to work with someone who WANTS to work with you and someone who WANTS a mentor, right now. A better idea is to simply make it known that you are open to mentoring. If you work for a medium or large company, they often have mentorship programs where they will assign someone to you. Or, if you simply make it known that you are open to it, others many times will approach you directly.

If not, don’t force it. A mentor/mentee relationship only works with two willing participants!

Lastly, if your mentor is more of a peer, perhaps you can act as their mentor, back – if they don’t already have one. That can simply be a quick conversation of “Do you have a mentor?” and if not, “If you’d be interested, I am open to being your mentor or at least trying to help you reach your goals” and leave it in their court.

In other words, you could set up a mutual mentorship with a colleague, where you both check-in and both talk through what you are working on. This is to everyone’s benefit.

Minimum requirements of your mentees
I’ve been lucky enough to be in the role of mentor, mostly informally – and I’ve had mixed success. A vast majority of the experience though, has been positive for both parties. If you have been asked to be a mentor, what should you expect of your potential mentee? How do you make the most of this, and also not have people waste your time?

Well, most of things I listed above! You should be very clear about your expectations and the roles/responsibilities for each of you. You should do this not to be a “big jerk” and think you are “all that”, but more for A) to help the mentee understand the boundaries of the relationship and B) to give you a reference point for when the mentee gets off track.

If your potential mentee is in IT and they don’t have a blog, tell them to start a blog and start posting about what they are working on. If an IT professional in the year 2015 doesn’t have a blog, documenting their professional development – that is a non-starter for me, personally. That is square-one for professional development, and if they aren’t interested enough to even do that, then they’ve already shown how committed and serious they are about a mentorship.

Of any “bad” experiences I’ve had with mentees, it’s mostly been around time, commitments, and “bad” questions.

  • Time: We’d have goals for what to accomplish in the next week, and they didn’t do any of the work – yet we’d still meet for a half hour to talk about why those things didn’t get done. A half hour of excuses. That’s a waste of everyone’s time. If you didn’t get the tasks done, then make a new plan, and let’s meet again next week. I see no benefit of going over all of the obstacles that supplanted your professional development plans – let’s just move on!
  • Commitments: We’d have a meeting for 4pm and they didn’t call until 4:07… or they didn’t call at all… or I get an e-mail 2 days later saying “sorry I didn’t call”. There have been times when I broke plans to be at my mentor meeting, to have the mentee not call. I have a very short tolerance for this. After 2-3 incidents, I’ve ended my participation – this is a showstopper for me, personally.
  • “Bad” questions: I firmly believe “there is no such thing as a stupid question”. However, if a person asks me the same question multiple times, that really frustrates me. If you are asking me a question, I assume it wasn’t something you knew or figured out – so put some stock in my answer; write it down! If you ask me the same question again, and then a 3rd time – I simply won’t answer that question any more. I worked with a developer over several years – she NEVER asked the same question twice, and over that time, her questions got more and more complicated – that’s how it should be!

If you are a mentor, you might have other issues. If you are meeting in person, geeks and nerds are notorious for poor physical hygiene. Sitting across from someone with strong, bad breath, or strong body odor can be significantly distracted and very unpleasant. Again, the mentee should avoid doing things to actively agitate the mentor! As the mentor, you could arguably bring this up to them – or you could write all of it down in place.

In other words, one thing you may want to do is write down your own expectations in a mentorship relationship. This blog post, is mine. If I am pursuing a mentor, or if I am asked to be a mentor – I will point to this blog post for what my expectations are for both roles. You may want to do the same.

Bottom line:
The goal here is to set up a basic framework, some guidelines for a mentoring relationship so that it’s a mutually-beneficial exchange for both parties. The best way I know to do that is for each party to communicate their wishes and expectations, and to be as respectful as possible of the other party.

If you start your mentorship based on mutual respect, then it can be a very valuable exchange for all involved.

Posted in General, Professional Development, Uncategorized

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