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Be a Mentor

Looking back over my eleven-year career in the web industry, I owe most of my success to two people from early on: Holly and Rebecca. Both were supervisors; but, more importantly, both were mentors. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their mentorship. Three years into my career, I got a promotion and became a supervisor myself. It was so exciting to be in a position to mentor others and give back to the community! I only had one question: how the heck do I do that?

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Mentorship has always been a part of the web industry. One of the first pieces of advice given to young web professionals is to find a mentor, and many experienced web professionals are where they are today because of their mentors. I think most of us would agree that mentoring others is a great thing. But when do you start mentoring? How do you provide good mentorship? How do you find people to mentor? In short, how do you do this?

The truth I learned is that just about anyone with professional experience has something to offer novice or aspiring web professionals. You don’t have to be a director or an international speaker to be a good mentor—you can start today, and it’s probably easier than you think. You just need to be present, positive, patient, and productive.

Finding opportunities

You don’t need to be a supervisor to be a mentor, but if you’re not, finding someone to mentor can be intimidating. You can make this process much easier by having a few things in order and looking in the right spots.

Before you seek out a mentee, you need to have demonstrable expertise to offer them. Make sure your personal website or portfolio is up to date. Try to build a professional following on Twitter or Medium to showcase your expertise. Answer some questions on StackOverflow or another forum, or write some tutorials. These will all help you in your career, and, when done well, can be mentorship opportunities in their own right.

Workplaces are usually ripe with opportunities for mentorship. If you hold a manager or senior title, mentorship is an expectation; but even if you don’t, there’s always a need for showing new or younger employees the ropes. Make sure to check with your supervisor first, but there’s usually a strong need for enthusiastic and experienced mentors.

Outside of work, mentorship opportunities still abound. If you’re experienced and successful in your field, you might talk with the local college (or even high school) about sharing your experience with interested students. Meetup groups are also a great place to meet people in search of an experienced mentor. Even if your area is completely devoid of others in the same field, the internet is not. Browse forums and online user groups—it won’t take long to find someone looking for a mentor.

Be present

A while back, I got some personal business cards printed up. I wasn’t looking for work. I meet a lot of people new to the web industry who could use someone to answer a few questions or provide feedback. I gave out about twenty business cards to friends, colleagues, and willing strangers with the explanation that I would answer their questions or review their projects. Want to guess how many used the card to contact me?

Zero. That’s how many people reached out to me for feedback. The reason? Just like it’s harder to keep up with friends who move away, it’s hard to ask for feedback from someone who doesn’t seem available. People don’t think about it, or they feel bad about bothering you, or they get busy—whatever the reason, it’s a lot harder to reach out to someone who’s not present.

Being present means creating opportunities for meaningful interaction. This doesn’t just mean proximity, but that’s a big part of it. If your job involves mentoring someone, sitting next to them will make this much easier. If you’re trying to mentor someone outside of work, checking in from time to time will do wonders. Lunch and coffee are amazing catalysts for mentorship. A personal connection (like a phone call or email) will go much further than an impersonal one (like my business cards).

But even if you sit next to them, if you’re overwhelmed with the other aspects of your life, you’ll have the same problems. Showing that you’re too busy, even if you’re not trying to tell them that, will quickly halt mentorship opportunities. Talking about how stressed out or busy you are, constantly wearing headphones, and putting off someone’s inquiries are surefire ways to do this. Make sure you’re portraying yourself as available and interested in what they have to ask you.

Asking for mentorship is hard. People don’t like admitting that they don’t know something, nor do they like feeling indebted to or imposing on others. Asking for mentorship triggers these anxieties. That’s why there are so few people asking about mentorship, even though there are so many looking for it. Taking steps to ease these anxieties, like reassuring them that they’re doing well and showing them that you’re happy to help, makes it much easier for the other person to come to you.

If you’re serious about mentoring, taking the initiative to schedule a check-in or review will improve the relationship greatly. The key word is intentionality. Good mentorship cannot happen by a happy accident—it takes action on your part to make it happen. If you don’t think scheduling a meeting would be appropriate, get their contact information and send a quick email or text. This opens the door for them to talk freely about what’s going on in their life and work.

If your mentee doesn’t believe that they’re important to you, they’re never going to open up and ask for help. Being present shows them that they matter to you, and that requires some intentional action on your part. Mentorship often doesn’t happen without this. Taking steps to be present in others’ lives is usually a prerequisite to mentorship.

Be positive

Mentorship is about enabling positive change in your mentee. While this can be done in many ways, it usually starts with either convincing or inspiring. Convincing is very logical and is based in the present: how should you be thinking? Inspiring is more emotional and is based on the future: what could you become? While both are important, inspiring is usually the most effective way to produce change—people won’t change unless they want to, no matter how logical the argument.

Inspiring requires a positive outcome to focus on, an end goal that’s enticing enough to sway someone from their current path. This can be concrete, like a better job, or abstract, like better people skills; but it’s always something that the mentee wants for their future.

Here’s the catch: inspiration isn’t always something a mentee brings into a mentoring relationship. An inexperienced mentee may have no idea what they want for their future, or may have a very skewed view of what’s possible. Sometimes it’s up to the mentor to cast a vision and show the mentee what he or she may not even believe is attainable. This can only happen when you emphasize potential instead of problems, and that starts with positivity.

It’s been said that attitudes are contagious. There’s actually some science behind that. When we talk to someone we perceive as similar, it’s very common to mimic them unconsciously: particularly their posture, behavior, speech patterns, and mannerisms. And we are very good at picking up on sentiment. A study showed that even non-verbal vocalizations, such as “hmm,” conveyed positive or negative emotions and evoked responses in others.

Attitudes are contagious because we communicate them and people reflect them without even trying. You broadcast your sentiment to your mentees, and they pick up on it and mirror back to you what you’re feeling, even if you don’t intend to communicate it. So if you don’t focus on what inspires your mentees with your attitude and actions, there’s a good chance that they won’t either, even if your words say otherwise.

Inspiring doesn’t mean ignoring the negative; it means framing the negative in the larger positive. Instead of saying, “You need to spend less time working on overly-complicated solutions,” you can say, “You can be more efficient and offer more value to your clients if you work on simplifying your approach.” The request is equivalent, but the goal is much greater. Offering a positive outcome is much more motivating than stating the immediate negative, even though the intended outcome is the same.

Celebrating victories together is another great way to focus on the positive. Checking off big goals is fantastic, but it happens so infrequently that it can’t be counted on to sustain motivation. Celebrating milestones can offer some much needed encouragement along the way. If a junior developer is working toward being able to code an entire site, setting up form validation is a major milestone. If a designer is working toward being a creative director, having a coworker request their feedback can be a big achievement. You don’t have to bake them a cake, but simply acknowledging and praising these little victories can provide great help along the way toward a stronger future.

Be patient

Early on in my mentoring relationship with Rebecca, she stressed to me the importance of being more organized. I wish I could say I took this to heart and ran with it and totally changed my life based on that feedback, but honestly, I didn’t. Urgent things kept popping up, and it was easier to continue to deal with them in a way that was comfortable to me. Rebecca never forced me to change—she wanted it to be my decision. Eventually, I found that my methods were failing and—guess what?—I needed to be more organized. If I’d listened to Rebecca when she first gave me the advice, I would have improved much more quickly.

As a mentor, this sort of thing happens all the time. Sometimes change happens slowly, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. What’s going on? Your mentee has come to you because he or she wants to get better—so why resist change?

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins once said, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” As a mentor, you’re going to have a clear view of your mentee’s pain of staying the same. Your mentee is going to have an intimate view of their own pain of changing. Never assume that both of you have a clear understanding of both of those pieces of information.

If you’re lucky, your mentee will come to you after they’ve decided that they want to change. But many times, your mentee won’t know what change looks like until they work with you for a while. Your mentee may actually be shocked by how different change looks compared to what they imagined it would be. You may have to show your mentee the value of changing while disarming their anxieties.

Even when the push for positive change has begun, there will be times when it will seem more like a glacier than a flowing river. Your mentee may make mistakes—sometimes the same mistake over and over. They could resist change through an arrogant or stubborn attitude. They could impede it by failing to respond to or take on good opportunities. This can be agonizing for a mentor to watch.

There’s a story about a traveler who went to visit a particularly wise man to ask him what made him so much smarter than the average guy. The wise man answered, “I have made 10,000 mistakes.” The traveler, perplexed, asked how that’s different than the average guy. The wise man replied, “The average man makes 10 mistakes 1,000 times each.”

Your job is not to stop your mentee from making any mistakes; it’s to stop them from making the same mistakes over and over. There will be times when you want to jump in and correct their every move. There will be times you want to give up. There will be times you want to tell them they’re not learning. Resist. If your mentee is open to change and is making progress, allowing them to fail and learn their own lessons can be an important part of the learning process. As long as your mentee is making new mistakes and not the same ones repeatedly, progress is happening.

Your mentee may not be fully aware of the progress they are making. They may not see mistakes as forms of progress, or they may minimize how much they have accomplished. Sometimes, it just takes someone who has been around for longer to identify growth.

Change can go much slower than you want it to. At times, it may also surprise you by moving faster than anticipated. The important thing to remember is that another person’s change does not happen on your timetable.

Once change starts happening, it’ll be up to you to keep it moving toward a meaningful goal.

Be productive

Good feelings are great, but they don’t mean a thing if there’s no improvement. Your mentee has to work toward real goals for real-world improvement, and that’s not going to happen unless you get specific. Some structure goes a long way in helping your mentee succeed, and figuring that out beforehand can make or break the relationship.

Have a schedule and stick to it. If you’re scheduling mentoring sessions haphazardly, they’re not going to happen regularly enough and they’ll just stop happening eventually. If neither party has anything for a meeting, you can cancel it, but you’d be surprised how many little things come up in regular sessions that wouldn’t necessitate their own meeting. Also, if you’re only scheduling sessions when they’re needed, there’s a tendency to only schedule sessions when something goes wrong. When that happens, mentoring sessions can feel like a punishment.

Frequency is going to differ based on a lot of factors—it might be weekly or it might be once a quarter, and it might take a few sessions to figure that out. The rule of thumb is to start with more frequency. If a mentee is at a point where he or she can work independently and still make good progress, you can probably start meeting less frequently.

Work together with your mentee to define an objective. Why does your mentee want to improve? An objective can be somewhat loosely defined, but it should have a specific outcome tied to the individual’s career. Being a good designer is too loose, but getting an excellent portfolio ready for a first job is much better. Being a great developer is similarly vague, but being a subject matter expert on a niche technology is much more helpful. This can and probably will end up changing as you and your mentee learn more, but it will at least give you a direction to head in.

Once the objective is defined, create goals to establish milestones. Read up on SMART goals and make sure your mentee knows how to define them. Each goal should help your mentee toward his or her objective and should be a single measurable step. If a goal is not met in the specified time frame, it’s not the end of the world—just set a new one. If goals are consistently not met, you may have to have a hard conversation with your mentee about how realistic the goals are. Just make sure your mentee is constantly moving toward their objective.

Make a loose agenda for your sessions. There should be some flexibility for urgent topics that come up, but you should know ahead of time what topics you want to discuss or ask about. The agenda should make sense to you and your mentee, so you’ll probably want to craft your own, but here’s one to get you started:

  1. How are you feeling?
  2. What have you been doing?
  3. How are you progressing toward your goals?
  4. How have you succeeded?
  5. What do you want to accomplish in the near future?

Lastly, don’t forget to write everything down. It doesn’t matter how good your memory is; things will be lost between sessions if you don’t write them down. Write down notes for each section of your agenda, and review them before the next session. By doing this, there will be consistency between sessions, and you’ll often resolve issues that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks.

Be a mentor

Remember, you don’t have to be a famous speaker, a renowned expert, or even at the top of the career ladder to be a good mentor—you just have to be able to articulate what what got you where you are today to someone who’s not there yet. If you are willing to do this authentically by being present, positive, patient, and productive, you can be a great mentor today.

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