Mentoring: You're Doing It Badly

Hey tech community, we need to talk. As a whole, the tech community really doesn’t understand mentoring. You know what the word is. You know that it is good. But most of you are doing it wrong. Which is weird, because we seem to talk about it all the time. Many job ladders have phrases like “mentors junior engineers” in the expectations. Most companies assign mentors to new hires. A lot of folks in the tech world share articles about sponsorship versus mentorship or create yet another mentoring program for people in tech. But I rarely see folks checking in after the program is underway to see how it is going and ask participants if it is helping them reach their goals. Tech seems to think that mentoring means matching up folks and then having the mentor tell the mentee how to live their life.

Your Mentee Isn’t You

All of the problems I see in mentorship come from one flawed assumption. Too many folks assume their mentee is just like them. Or at least that their mentee is a younger, less experienced, or less capable version of themselves. And once that assumption is made it is hard to be an effective mentor. I believe most mentors don’t realize they are making this assumption. Folks are just eager to share their knowledge and experience that they don’t slow down long enough to evaluate if it is useful or relevant to the person they’re trying to help. Instead, they just plow ahead, eager to bestow their wisdom and try to make their mentee into a mini-me.

But, your mentee isn’t you. Their journey to tech isn’t your journey. Their goals are probably different than yours. How they are perceived by others is probably different than how you are seen. This is especially true if your mentee is of a different race, gender, or cultural background than you. If you try to mentor someone by telling them what worked for you, your mentorship has a good chance of failure. There is no single path to success in tech. In this fantastic article about feedback, Buckingham and Goodall phrase it this way, “We think we’re a source of truth. We aren’t. We’re a source of error.”

Listen and Respect

So where do you begin a mentorship relationship if not from your own experiences? Start by listening. Ask the folks you mentor what their goals are, both for the mentoring program and their career. Learn about their past successes and their passions. Find out what they’re already tried in pursuit of their goals. Seek to understand what got them to where they’re at.

It is likely that your mentee’s beliefs, experiences, or goals may feel foreign or misguided to you. When this happens, the best thing you can do is trust that your mentee is an expert on their own life. Don’t second guess what they say. Ask more questions and believe the answers they give. Help them brainstorm solutions or strategies based on what’s worked well for them in the past. Use their values and goals as the basis for mentoring them and be aware of where your experience and knowledge is helpful and where it isn’t.

There are lots of articles about sponsorship versus mentorship that have made the rounds. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, a crude summary is that mentors give advice and sponsors create opportunities.

Sponsors use their social capital and connections to nurture the career of the person they are sponsoring. They make introductions. They pass on opportunities, even ones they may have wanted for themselves. They endorse folks publicly.

But sponsorship can be done poorly. When endorsing someone in public, avoid the trap of “I think the woman I’m mentoring, Vanessa, deserves a chance to participate in this.” Instead, talk about the people you sponsor the way you talk about other valued colleagues, “We should include Vanessa, she has a lot of background with similar customers that will be helpful here.” I’ve seen folks pass off all their tedious work to their mentee in the name of sponsorship. Or including someone in a planning meeting but not letting them contribute. This isn’t sponsorship, its patronizing.

When you sponsor someone, you treat them and their career as valuable as your own. You pass on opportunities to them that are relevant to their goals, even if that means you end up competing for a speaking slot at the same conference. You encourage them to take smart risks. And you let them struggle and learn from the failures the way you did. When men sponsor women, it is easy to fall into patterns of benevolent sexism where the man tries to protect the women from bad experiences and ends up limiting their opportunities. The folks you mentor don’t need to be protected, they need to be included.

Give a Fuck

The last tip I have is that good mentors care and they show they care through the action. Caring can be checking in on someone when a re-org happens or when there’s an event in the broader world that is likely to upset them. Caring can also be wanting to know about their life beyond the office and remembering the name of their partner or their pets. But the best way to show caring is to make your mentee comfortable. That means having healthy boundaries and not being creepy. It means being open to meeting over meals, outside the office, or potentially having walking 1:1s if that would make the other person more comfortable.

Mentoring isn’t hard, but it requires putting someone else’s goals and needs before your own. Doing it well means acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and that their path to success likely looks different than your own. And it means treating each other like human beings, and not stepping stones on your own career path.