Proactive Mentorship

The concept of proactive mentorship is all about encouraging both mentees and mentors to be assertive in asking for and offering help.

I’m a big believer in mentorship because I’m a byproduct of many patient mentors. I wouldn’t be close to where I am today without them. With every job I’ve ever had, I’ve been fortunate enough to have someone take me under their wing and show me the ropes in my early years and help me mature in these later years. Too often these days, I talk with people that need mentors, but they don’t have one, don’t know how to find one, and don’t know where to start. I don’t think it has to do with pride, because they want to grow and need someone to speak truth into their lives. There are so many seasoned people out there that would make great mentors and so many mentees that need their help, but they aren’t connected. The effects of a good mentor are not celebrated enough and the result is a generation of people left to their own devices and aren’t growing as quickly as they could.

I would love to see a mentorship revival - especially in the tech industry - where everyone is your competitor - and everyone is the smartest person in the room. It’s time to swallow our pride and reach out to those more experienced than us and ask for help. By not having a mentor, you are saying you don’t want unbiased guidance that will accelerate your growth and help you through the most challenging times in your career. The only thing that is stopping you is the right motive and tools.

Mentors are the behind-the-scenes people that take you under their wing because they see your potential and want to contribute to your growth. A great mentor is comfortable being your “dutch uncle” and will tell you exactly what they think, even if it is uncomfortable; they always tell it like they see it. We need people like that in our lives to help accelerate our growth. A mentor is someone that you can be vulnerable with, trust to not judge you too harshly, and provide you with strategies that you would have never thought of on your own.

From the mentor’s perspective, having a mentee stretches you to effectively communicate what you’ve learned over the years and enables you to have significant impact in the lives of others. The only two things you need to be a mentor or mentee are a growth mindset and time. When you have a growth mindset, you are open to learning about yourself and others and are always looking for ways to improve. It may not be obvious, but having a growth mindset also means that you are dedicated to helping others in their growth. Having time is a tough one, we’re all busy, but I bet you can spare 30 minutes a month to have meaningful and lasting impact on someone else’s career and life.

I recommend at least two mentors, one from your immediate team and one from outside your team, and at least one mentee.

The “mentor on your team” has context into the people and projects you are working on and can give you anecdotal recommendations and feedback based on their first-hand observations. If there isn’t anyone on your team that could be your mentor, then look harder, ask your manager for a reference. If you still come up empty then maybe it is time to move on to a different team or company because you might be the smartest and most experienced person in the room. If you can’t learn from anyone on the team, then you are likely stunting your growth. It is essential that you surround yourself with people that are smarter than you - people that will raise the bar of the entire team, including you. Ideally, one mentor on your team is your manager and you can trust them enough to talk about anything without it impacting your performance reviews. If you don’t have that relationship with your manager, then give it time and try to intentionally develop that trust. If it’s not there after a while, then maybe it is time to find a different manager, or look elsewhere for your mentorship needs. Whatever your strategy is, definitely have someone on your team that you can go to for help.

The “mentor outside your team”, should be someone that has the type of job you want in a few years or someone you look up to. The reason why we want a mentor outside of your team is because they don’t have context and can give you an unbiased opinion without any of the politics. Your ideal mentor might be out of reach at your current stage - i.e. the CEO isn’t likely to be your mentor if you are a junior developer, so start lower in the hierarchy if need be. Either way, aim as high as you feel comfortable and work your way around until you find the right match. Most of the time all you have to do is introduce yourself, tell them you would like some advice, and see if they have time to grab coffee and chat. I’m always open to doing that and I think most others would be as well. Just keep in mind that these folks are busy as well and most of them I know are open to occasional chats, but don’t have cycles to commit to a formal mentoring relationship on a regular basis. Some people just prefer a coffee chat as needed - so discuss that with them and figure out what is best for them.

If you are a lead or a manager, then the mentee part is easy because those people report to you. But be open to mentoring other people outside of your team as well. Having a growth mindset also means that you support others in their growth. If you don’t have time, then you can always refer them to someone else on your team or another colleague. If you aren’t in a leadership role, then look around for more junior folks on your team or sister teams. Discuss the mentorship opportunity with your manager and their manager. Let them know that you are open to mentoring and ask them to keep an eye out for people that you can help. Get on a project with them, see where they need help, and provide them with guidance and support. Even if you are a new college hire, get into the habit of being a mentor by finding an intern you can coach.

For managers, I recommend putting effort into bootstrapping mentoring on your team. This means being on the lookout for people that can use a mentor or a mentee and making a connection between the two. I start by individually talking to everyone on my team and let them know my mentoring philosophy. I then let them know who on the team I think they could learn from and ask if they are okay either being a specific person’s mentor and being another specific person’s mentee.

Here’s an example of how this recently played out on our team.

A developer from a sister team has been helping my team with a bunch of projects. This person was receiving glowing feedback from everyone that worked with them. That is excellent and I’m proud of them for doing so well. But, my natural inclination, when I hear “nothing but glowing feedback”, is that the person needs to be promoted, challenged and pushed out of their comfort zone. We all have room for improvement. I had a one-on-one with them and asked them what they wanted to do with their career. They said the only thing they want to do right now is create, learn and grow as a developer. They will grow just by being around the other folks on the team, but there’s an opportunity here to accelerate their growth by intentionally setting them up with a mentor on the team. Someone that has many more years of experience and has worked on high-scale services. I explicitly told them who I wanted them to seek feedback from and be open to direct feedback from him at any time. I also explicitly told the mentor that I wanted him to help them grow. Both of them benefit and it only required me to make the connection.

I’ve also instilled in the more senior folks that they are to be the patient leader who listens to others complete thoughts, without cutting them off, and helps the team strive to make significant impact through a common vision and shared goals. As a more experienced person, it is easy to forget that we were just starting out not too long ago and lots of people have invested in us. It’s our duty to do the same for others.

I’ve seen mentorship decline in our industry and I want help do something about it. I’ve seen the process above help: have two mentors, one on your team, one not on your team and have at least one mentee. Be assertive in your quest to find a great mentor - ask your manager for help if you need it. If you are a manager, when you see an opportunity, assign explicit mentor/mentee relationships on your team. Hold each of them accountable to be honest with each other and support them in having each other’s best interest in mind and check in with them regularly.

Now, go get a mentor or two and say “yes” to requests for advice and coffee.