Can you answer the question “Who is your mentor?” If you can’t, this post is for you.
Why Do You Need a Mentor?
The answer is simple. You need a mentor because you don’t know everything. You can’t. However, somebody with more experience than you, somewhere out there, knows what you need to do or know to make progress toward your goals. Many things can be learned from books and articles, but not everything can. There is something powerful about a relationship with a mentor. It helps you to learn skills you don’t have a name for. It provides you a channel to get answers to specific and unique questions.
Anyone working in the software development industry should have one or more mentors. That’s probably true for all sectors, but I can only speak with credibility about my industry, so I will focus on that.
What is a mentor?
A mentor is a trusted adviser. Someone who is experienced, and can teach you something about one or more aspects of your area of interest. Even the most senior leaders have or had mentors. For example, Bill Gate’s mentor is Warren Buffet. Warren Buffet’s mentor was Benjamin Graham. Mark Zuckerberg’s mentor was Steve Jobs. Steve jobs had several mentors; one of them was Bill Campbell.
Pick a name of a leader that you respect, and do some research. You’ll find that they all have or had mentors who helped them be who they are.
“Mentor” is not an official title. Your mentor doesn’t even have to know that they are your mentor. They could be someone you work or have worked with. Or they could be someone you know outside of your professional sphere. They could even be people that you meet rarely, but that you have a way to observe or ask questions to. Perhaps somebody on social media, or the author of a book, or a podcaster, or maybe a blogger.
How do you find a mentor?
Find a great person, not someone with a great title.
Ideally, your boss is also your mentor, but that isn’t always the case. Mentors can be found anywhere, and they might not work with you. It’s important for you to choose a mentor who aligns with your goals, aspiration, character, and personality. But, it’s important that you don’t choose a mentor that is exactly like you. Differences are good. They just need to be compatible differences.
A mentor does not have to be a leader in the industry or somebody that is your senior. For example, a head of a company I used to work for was unable to empathize with people. He relied on one of his reports to try to understand the chaos he created when he came down too hard on others. I saw him grow with his mentor’s help, even if there was no official mentorship agreement between the two.
Some companies sponsor mentorship programs between employees. Those programs are useful because they ease the awkwardness factor of approaching colleagues to ask for mentorship. I helped to start a mentorship program in my company, and it was received with enthusiasm.
A mentor is not your buddy.
A mentor doesn’t have to be your friend or somebody that likes you. He or she has to be somebody that is willing to put the time to help you, answer your question, and give you advice. If they like you, it’s more likely to work, but it’s not required. A mentor needs to be open and frank, and should not hold back their feedback.
Help your mentor help you.
A mentor is not going to do the work for you. They are someone who will place you at the start of what they think is the right path, give you some recommendations, and let you march alone. Ideally, they’d give you feedback and help you see a way out of problems. You shouldn’t expect them to fix problems for you. They won’t. Instead, you should give them the information they need to give opinions on specific situations.
You need to invest time to educate your mentor on what you are trying to achieve, and the situations you are in. It is on you as a mentee to ask questions and listen to their points of view. A good mentor will give you high-level direction and, ideally, simple rules of thumb. Don’t expect step by step instructions.
A mentor should also not have to chase you down to find out how things are going, or have to come to you to help you. You need to put yourself on their radar, follow up, and keep them informed. If you ask them a question and disappear, your mentor will lose interest in helping you.
Approach people you admire and get noticed.
Mentors will most likely not seek you out as a pupil or fight for the honor to help you. That happens only in movies. You need to study their work, then approach them several times without annoying them. You need to get on their radar, organically. There is not a single way to do it, and it depends on the situation and the personalities involved.
It’s going to be unlikely to form a mentorship relationship by asking someone for it, out of the blue. It is not enough to know their title or be aware of accomplishment that you don’t understand. A mentor is going to want to know that you are serious, motivated, and familiar with their work and style.
Before you ask someone to be your mentor, you should give them some reason to say “yes.” They need to understand why you chose them. For example, a mentor is going to be motivated to help if they know that you have been admiring their work for a while. If you display a promising set of skills, or if they believe you can be successful, that’s even better.
Don’t look for praise, look for open feedback.
A good mentor is not someone who praises you all the time and feeds your ego. A good mentor is going to show you ways of thinking that are different from yours. New ways of thinking and new perspectives are what you want to learn. You must be open to internalize concepts that might be foreign to you. The experience might seem confusing and messy, but that is part of the process of learning.
Don’t confuse a mentor for a coach.
An ideal mentor might praise you for what you did. They will also encourage you to do some things. However, they should not work hard to persuade you to do anything. That is not their job.
A mentor will mention what they think you need to and explain why. At that point, it is up to you to find the energy and motivation to go do it.
Don’t confuse a mentor for a cheerleader.
A mentor might show you the way, but they won’t follow you around, cheering at every corner. They are not there to tell you how great you are, or to encourage you at every step. You’ll need friends and family for that. A mentor could be your friend, but a good friend might not make a good mentor.
A mentor could be your friend, nothing wrong with that. A good friend, however, might not be a good mentor. The two roles are separate and do not often coincide.
Commit yourself to the process.
Lack of mentee commitment is the most common reason for mentorship failures. If you want to get something out of a mentor-mentee relationship, you must commit to the process. Try to put your mentor’s suggestions into practice, at least some of the time. If you don’t, they will lose interest in helping someone who refuses to take advice.
If you don’t trust your mentor or you never like their suggestions or points of view, you might need to find a new one. A mentorship is not for life. If things do not work for you, do not be afraid to abandon one mentor to find a new one. However, give it a chance before you move on.