Good Mentoring Advice

I like to say that we should manage the work, and mentor the people. But I have to admit, my knowledge of how to manage the work is much stronger than my knowledge of how to mentor the people. I’ve decided to work on that, because even though I am not anyone’s formal manager right now, I still have opportunities to mentor people. And I’d like to be better at it.

I’ll be reading about research into how best to mentor people. But I realized I also have some personal experience I can reflect on: the times when people have effectively mentored me. I’ve been thinking about what made those mentoring relationships effective, beyond the obvious things like mutual respect. In each mentoring relationship I found effective, the key has been the mentor’s willingness to give me feedback that I might not have wanted to hear, and their ability to give it such a way that I saw steps I could take to improve and address the concern. It is a corollary to the oft-given advice to never present a problem to your manager without proposing a solution: when you give someone feedback about something they should improve, point them to ideas on how to improve.

I’ll give two examples of particularly useful mentoring advice I received earlier in my career.

Feedback: You will be more effective if you slow down and make sure everyone can “keep up” with your train of thought.

I was embarrassed when I realized that this feedback was true. I had picked up some bad habits from the tech culture I was seeking to be a part of, and was not behaving as well as I should have. I was acting like anyone who couldn’t keep up with me didn’t deserve to be involved. That is a terrible way to behave, and it is also a behavior that will limit your influence in an organization.

Suggestion: Check in periodically to make sure everyone is following.

I learned slow down and look around more. I learned to look for confusion and rephrase and restate my point if I saw it. I made a point to not be dismissive of questions. Basically, I reigned in the jerk behaviors I’d picked up from trying to assimilate into tech culture, and tried to be a nice person. I realized that the jerk behaviors might get tolerated or even rewarded in some really good programmers with rare skills, but that better behaviors are more generally rewarded. You’ll feel better about yourself, too.

Feedback: You don’t want to be known as the tech leader that always says “no.”

Like many new managers in charge of a technical team, I had an instinct to say “no, that can’t be done” when presented with a request that was technically challenging or just downright unfeasible given the limits on my team, budget, or physical reality. My mentor let me know that this was an instinct that would limit my opportunities. If you always say “no” to requests from more senior managers, they’ll stop asking you, and you’ll never get the opportunities you need to really shine.

Suggestion: Train yourself to say “Yes, and I’ll need x,y, z” or “No, but we could do a or b instead.”

It took a little bit of effort, but this is now my default instinct. And now I’m the one annoyed when a tech person just gives me a blunt “no.” The general lesson here is to try to understand other people’s goals, because then you can look for ways to get them what they want without putting your own team at risk of failure.

I’m sure I’ll come up with other good mentoring advice I’ve gotten as I think about this more. Maybe I’ll make this a regular topic here. In the meantime, if you ever received any particularly useful mentoring advice, feel free to share it in the comments.

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