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John Zittlau for Jobber

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I've been mentoring others formally and informally for over two decades now. Below you'll see my thoughts on why I do it and tips I feel are valuable for both the mentor and the mentee in order to have a successful experience. You can hear some more of my thoughts on the linked episode of Culture of Code

Why I Mentor

The short simple answer is to give back. Beyond that is joy I get in seeing those I've mentored move on and succeed. Knowing that I've made a positive difference in someone's life is a big win.

I've had short term relationships with my mentees that have lasted a few months to long term relationships spanning more than a decade. I've met up with former mentees further down in their career. It is always rewarding to see how they have changed and grown.

Finally, I learn from being a mentor. Whether I'm doing technical mentorship or more general life and career type coaching, there are always interesting, new and hard questions that the mentees has. Digging in so that I can provide meaningful help is likely to lead to my growth as well as theirs.

How to be a successful Mentor

First and foremost, be a mentee. Seek out others to help you grow. Understanding the relationship from both sides is critical.

Second. Be humble and vulnerable. I've found that the best mentor/mentee relationships are those where the mentor is not afraid to say "I don't know" and also to share tough lessons from their past. By showing that you also are on a learning journey, you gain the trust of the mentee and are likely to have deeper conversations which can lead to deeper learning. This may sound less relevant to a technical relationship, but it isn't. The strongest thing you can teach anyone is how to learn for themselves. Role modeling that you are still learning is a powerful lesson.

Third. Meet your commitments. During a session, you may well commit to finding the answer to something or thinking further about an issue so that you can provide deeper insights. Make sure you follow up on those. If you don't, you are signaling to your mentee that you do not consider this time well spent. And if that is the case, you are wasting both people's time.

Fourth. Listen. Sounds obvious, but many of us get into the trap of planning what we'll say next in a conversation. Don't do that. You'll miss important cues. And sometimes the mentee doesn't know what they don't know and so understanding what they actually need help with can come from cues beyond what they say.

How to be a successful Mentee

First: Be there to learn, not to be shown the solution. The goal of having a mentor is to grow. You grow by learning and trying and sometimes failing. Just being given the lines of code to write or the paragraph to say will limit your learning. Expect your mentor to point you to a destination, but maybe not the waypoints on the way.

Second: Be humble and vulnerable. Just like for the mentor, you need to go into this being humble and vulnerable. Don't hide areas you know you need to grow in. Be your real self. If you are hiding your skill level, comfort level, mistakes you've made in the past, you are limiting how your mentor can help you grow. Why do that? And pay attention if the mentor wants to focus elsewhere from where you want. They may see something important for you to grow in.

Third: Meet your commitments. Again, just like for the mentor, although likely more so, you will leave a session with homework. Do it. If not, you are showing you do not believe this mentor/mentee relationship is important to you. Remember, the mentor is volunteering their valuable time. Respect it.

Fourth: Don't be afraid to ask someone you respect to mentor you. Many people are thrilled with the opportunity to help others grow through sharing their insights and experiences. They may be willing to just have a one-time coffee with you, or will happily plan for a longer term mentoring relationship. The worst thing that can happen when you ask someone to mentor you is that you've given them a strong compliment.

How to have a successful mentor/mentee relationship

Most importantly, set expectations right away. Here are some questions to answer:

Is this a one-time coffee, or a long term commitment?

Is this a technical mentorship or more a general career/personal growth mentorship?

Agree to the frequency of get togethers?

Agree to the initial focus.

Revisit the above regularly

Other things to make clear early in the relationship

Confidentiality. It is almost always the case that these meetings should remain between the two of you, but it can be acceptable in the case where the mentor knows your manager that some topics can be shared with the manager. Be clear on the boundaries here.

When will this end? Sometimes there is no clear end state, but in other cases, the relationship can be bound by time or achieving some goal.

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