I've been mentoring people all around the world for a while. As I stepped into the management role, I also started coaching people in my team who were already mentors. When I started mentoring, I thought it would be less work for me as a mentor and a lot of work for the mentee.
It seemed logical to expect mentees to come up with topics and tell me skills they want to improve because they should know which ones they lack. At least as a starting point, I expected mentees to bring up what they wanted to improve. Soon I realized that it was not the reality. Mentees often have no idea where to improve. If they knew, they could have already worked on it by themselves.
On the other side, as a mentee, I often struggled with figuring out which skills I should improve. There are tons of information available, yet which ones to help in a career is always a question.
After a while, I looked for what a mentor should do, how to approach the mentee, how to build the relationship and trust and give the mentee the right direction.
Every mentor-mentee relationship should start with a clear goal. Depending on the need, the mentoring either will require a long time for a broad focus on skills or a short time with a focus on a specific one. Either way, I learned that the mentor should be as proactive as possible.
Whenever the mentor is passive and expects the mentee to come up with either a topic or questions, the relationship fails. Every time I tried to be proactive, asked questions, and brought new topics, our relationship with a mentee was stronger, and they were on a great learning path.
When a mentee asked a question I didn’t know the answer to, I went back to researching and learning. Then I brought the answer to the mentee without waiting for the next meeting. That made me trustworthy and reliable, and mentees became more relaxed and could ask whatever came to their mind.
Studying and researching helped me deepen my knowledge. I became more proficient in supporting the mentee in their learning path.
The beauty of the mentor-mentee relationship is that both sides learn.
Let’s list down the role of a mentor. A mentor
- makes the learning experience effective.
- asks guiding questions.
- keeps the focus on a topic.
- always listens.
- doesn’t leave the mentee alone.
On top of all, a proactive mentor
- asks the mentee if they need any help without waiting for them to ask for help.
- gives feedback on actions they observe from the outside without waiting for the meeting.
- builds the relationship without waiting for the mentee.
- researches and learns a topic they didn’t know and returns to the mentee with some answers.
It sounds like a lot of work for the mentor. However, all of these take a little time (except research). Building the relationship in this proactive approach will help both parties grow exponentially. Also, proactive mentorship is one of the milestones of any leadership position—whether manager or staff engineer.
Being a mentee means being out of the comfort zone. If the mentor waits for the mentee to ask a question, the mentee’s stress level increases even more. The reason for this relationship is the mentee’s struggle on a topic. Being in an incognizant position already creates tension. When we top that with even more responsibility, being a mentee becomes challenging.
Also, the mentee might not know they are on the wrong path. If the mentor is not proactive, the mentee can get far on the irrelevant track. Being proactive saves time for both mentor and mentee. The mentor can course-correct easily when they see the mentee going off-track in the beginning.
Lastly, proactive mentorship eases frustration. Mentees often struggle and can be hesitant to disturb mentors every hour. When there is no response for some time from the mentee, asking how they are doing helps mentees solve smaller problems easier and decompress their tension.
As you grow into leadership, proactive mentorship will be one of the milestones in your career. Being a great mentor always elevates you because people will back you up when you’re up for promotion regardless of your company’s promotion approach. Having these relationships will teach you tons of things you haven’t considered before and make you a great leader.
One last note, keep in mind that you’re not a teacher. I will talk about the differences between teaching, coaching, and mentoring in the next Mektups, but in short, teaching and coaching are one-way activities while mentoring is bidirectional. As a mentor, you must do the work as much as your mentee does.