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Mentoring is a great way to boost your career. Here's everything you need to know about getting a mentor, and becoming one yourself.

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Mentorship is all about lifting up others. It’s about listening, and sharing knowledge, advice, and perspectives based on your own experience, to help someone reach their maximum potential in an area.

Mentoring can make a huge difference to the careers and lives of mentees, and can offer a lot of benefits for mentors, too. Throughout my years as an engineering manager, I’ve realized that mentorship is a two-way street. Both parties improve, as individual contributors or as leaders, and learn to see things from a different perspective.

If you’re looking to grow and invest in your career, it’s a great idea to get yourself a mentor, and become one yourself. Here, I’m sharing everything you need to know about mentoring, from the different types of mentorship, to finding the right mentor for you, to becoming a great mentor to others.

Mentorship vs. coaching vs. sponsorship

Mentorship is often confused with coaching or sponsorship, but they’re very different disciplines with different objectives.

  • Mentor: A person who is typically more experienced than the mentee, or ahead in their career. They have depth of knowledge in a topic and can advise the mentee on long-term growth.
  • Coach:A qualified person who asks people powerful questions so the coachee can come up with the answers themselves. The goal is to improve performance on a particular task rapidly.
  • Sponsors: A person who puts their name and reputation on the line for someone else. They can help create new opportunities by talking or acting officially on a sponsee’s behalf.

What is engineering mentorship?

Now we’ve covered what mentorship is generally, but what about engineering mentorship? This refers to a relationship where a more experienced and knowledgeable engineer – the mentor – helps guide a less experienced or knowledgeable engineer – the mentee. 

A single mentor may not know everything about all of the mentee's interests. Instead, multiple expert mentors can help the mentee excel in different domains. For example, one mentor to help them improve their JavaScript skills and another for their communication skills.

Engineering mentorships can help mentors and mentees improve their professional networks and gain fresh perspectives on different projects and ideas. Mentorship meetings can take place in person or virtually.

The different types of engineering mentorship

There are a few different categories of engineering mentorship. The type of mentorship you’re entering into will influence how it comes about, who’s involved, how regularly you meet, and how structured the relationship is. Here are the four most common categories:

1. Onboarding mentorship

These are organized by companies to induct new hires. The idea is to assign a mentor or ‘buddy’ who will help the new hire quickly acclimatize to the company culture. Onboarding mentorships might last up to two months from the joining date.

2. Formal mentorship

Here, a junior engineer officially approaches a senior engineer requesting mentorship. If the senior agrees, they kick off their mentor-mentee relationship. They have regular meetings, and the mentor commits to helping the mentee grow. Some online communities also offer formal mentoring.

3. Informal mentorship

Informal mentorship is more hands-off compared to formal mentorship. It’s when engineers learn from a more experienced engineer on the job. Mentees might pick things up from their mentors during organization meetings, team meetings, 1:1s, or code reviews.

4. Reverse mentorship

A junior engineer sometimes acquires expertise in a specific aspect, say, a programming language or a new framework. With reverse mentorship, the senior engineer can seek guidance from the junior engineer as needed.

The organizational benefits of mentorship programs

Tech companies have started to value the importance of formal mentorships, and many have set up internal mentorship systems. These ensure that every engineer goes through at least one form of mentorship. These programs have many benefits for organizations, helping them to achieve some critical objectives:

Organizational objective

How mentoring helps

Grow emerging leaders.

Help high-performing co-workers develop their skills. 

Onboard quicker.

Teach new hires about the company culture and the expectations management may have.

Promote diversity and inclusion.

Empower co-workers from minority groups who may not currently be reaching their next level of career development.

Career development.

Assist colleagues in meeting their career goals by refining key next-level skills.

Improving culture.

Build productive relationships among co-workers to a foster a healthy environment.

Employee retention.

Show employees the company cares about their career prospects and futures.

Reputation building.

Demonstrate a commitment to employee development, highlighting the company is a good place to work

How to find a mentor

If you, your colleagues, or your prospective mentees are looking for someone to mentor them, try working through the following two questions. The answers should help to identify potentially good candidates.

  • What are your short- and long-term goals? Having specific goals makes finding the right mentor easier. Know what you want to accomplish professionally in the next three months and what changes are required to achieve these goals.
  • Who do you look up to? Whose job would you like to have in the next few years? Who is your immediate role model where you work?

Once you’ve identified an ideal person, it’s time to ask them if they’re willing to mentor you! Have an elevator pitch ready with clear goals, and why you think someone is a suitable mentor for you. Be upfront about your commitment and expectations from the relationship. The prospective mentor will then evaluate whether you’re a good fit for each other (if you’re asked to be someone’s mentor, you should do this too!).

How to run an effective kick-off meeting

Whether you’ve asked someone to become your mentor and they’ve said yes, or someone has asked you and you’ve agreed to mentor them, the next stage is attending a kick-off meeting.

A kick-off meeting is the first meeting between a mentor and mentee, and it’s a mainstay of formal mentorship. They can be awkward, with both parties making an excellent first impression. Here's some guidance on structuring your kick-off meetings as a mentor, and approaching them as a mentee.

1. Talk about your backgrounds

Talking about your background, experience, skillset, likes, and dislikes is a good ice-breaker. The idea is to ease the tension by discussing things that make you comfortable. Mentors can ask open-ended questions that will encourage the mentee to talk about themself.

2. Clarify your expectations

Both of you should clarify your expectations. Mentors can ask about the roles the mentee expects them to fulfill. Questions like, ‘What would you like to learn from me?’ or ‘What are your short- and long-term goals?’, provide a good base for moving forward.

3. Set a specific evaluation time

Mentees should agree on a specific time to evaluate their progress and growth with the mentor. When deciding on meeting times, mentees should be willing to make compromises that favor the mentor.

4. Itemize possible challenges

It’s helpful to discuss possible challenges, such as time limitations, in this early stage. Mentors could also inform mentees if they don't exactly know how mentoring works and might be ‘winging it’ along the way. Awareness about these challenges can help you prepare for them.

5. Set ground rules

As a mentor, you should set a tone for how you'll like your relationship with your mentee to be. You should state your expectations for confidentiality, timeliness, and other values important to you.

Tips for being a great mentor

Becoming a mentor is a big responsibility that requires good leadership and communication skills. Here are some tips to help you become an effective mentor:

1. Listen

Listen attentively to your mentees. Ask questions like, ‘What does success look like to you?’, or, ‘What do you want from this mentorship?’. The answers will help you determine a direction for the relationship. When your mentee comes to you with a problem or an idea, you must listen and understand before chipping in.

2. Empathize

Empathize with your mentee if they fail at something, instead of instantly rebuking them. Share stories of moments where you, too, have failed. This will renew their confidence and help them focus on learning from their mistakes.

3. Identify your mentee’s strengths

Determine your mentee's strengths and what makes them unique. In other words, identify their ‘superpower’. Provide opportunities that will help your mentee demonstrate their strengths. Doing the things they’re good will help them grow elf-confidence, which in turn will help them combat impostor syndrome. Understanding their strengths can also help you approach specific problems differently.

4. Provide feedback

When your mentee comes to you for feedback or recommendations, don't be hasty with your response. Listen and think things through before you provide any advice. Your answer should come from a place of experience and knowledge, not just a ‘gut feeling’. Convey positive and negative feedback constructively while letting your mentee know it's coming from a place of care, knowledge, and experience.

5. Be proactive

You must be actively involved in the development of your mentee! Assign tasks that will teach them something new. It can be outside their comfort zone, but not something that will get in the way of their regular jobs. Encourage them to explore new ideas and help them to refine these ideas.

6. Be the link

You are likely to be professionally better-connected than your mentee. Leverage your influence to connect your mentee to higher-ups. If your colleagues are working on a project that would benefit your mentee, then don't hesitate to be the link for your mentee. If you see an opportunity to help your mentee grow, put in a word for them.

7. Be available

Make yourself as accessible as possible. If you can't be available physically, encourage your mentee to send emails. Inform your mentee if you have to cancel a planned meeting and tell them why.

Becoming a mentor is a whole new experience. If you plan on going into management, I recommend trying mentorship. And if you prefer a less formal approach to mentoring, you and your mentee could tackle challenges together as they come.

Mentoring models

There are several excellent models for mentoring, such as speed mentoring, but my favorite is the GROW model.

Developed in the UK in the late 1980s by Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and Sir John Whitmore, the GROW model provides a simple but effective way to structure your mentorship sessions.

Here’s how it works. GROW is an acronym for:

1. Goal

This aspect covers setting goals and evaluating progress with your mentee. It answers questions like:

  • What do you aim to achieve?
  • What will that lead to?
  • How will we measure your development?

2. Reality

In this step, you determine the current state of available resources and mentee preparedness. This helps you decide on a starting point. You answer questions like:

  • How do you feel?
  • What are your priorities right now?
  • What resources are available to you right now

3. Options

This is the brainstorming step where you consider alternatives and possible ways to achieve the initial goals. Here you answer these questions:

  • If we had more resources, what could we do?
  • What are the different ways we could tackle problems?
  • What are the advantages or disadvantages of these alternatives?

4. Way forward

Here you decide between the alternatives at this step and set the way forward. You also discuss how you work towards a goal and what happens on the completion. During this step, you answer the questions:

  • Which option is the best to run with?
  • How committed will you be to this option?
  • What would you do upon completion?

Conclusion

Mentorship gives you access to new connections, disciplines, and possibly new jobs and the chance to form lifelong friendships. Mentorship requires diligence and dedication, and isn't always smooth sailing. However, if you are committed to improving yourself, mentorship can guarantee self-development for both the mentor and the mentee.

With special thanks to Leena Sohoni-Kasture for her help editing this article.