A Case for Mentorship
When I was in high school I had a teacher who used to say that the “best way to learn is by teaching others.” The idea, as I later learned, was not new; the Roman philosopher Seneca used to say that “by teaching we are learning.”
Learning through teaching has continued to play an important role in the various UX management and product management roles I’ve had in my career. I’ve had the pleasure of working with diverse teams in varying locations and comprised of a people with a wide range of skills, experience, and education. Managing and supporting a team is one part courage-building, one part management, one part problem solving, mixed with some coaching and mentorship. I’m certainly not perfect at it, but I did want to spend some time developing a particular area of my skills: mentorship.
So a couple years ago I decided to become a mentor to other someone else in UX and sent an email to signup for the IxDA’s mentorship program. I was interested in working with others who were either already working in or interested in working in this the UX field. I hoped to help others find their footing as practitioners, work through problems, discuss approaches to work, and help them build their professional networks. But through this journey, I’ve discovered a few things I’d like to share in the hope that others consider giving of their time to mentor.
Being a Good Mentor
So what makes a good mentor? Here are some of the traits that I think are important:
Confidence in your ability to mentor others
Mentoring someone else shouldn’t be taken lightly. You should have confidence that you can support others in their quest to improve. This might include confidence in the fact that you can spend the time and effort require.
A willingness to share
Your mentee might be looking for you to share your skills, knowledge, or expertise. You have to be open to sharing the good, the bad, and your thoughts and opinions frequently and regularly.
Skills questions often come in the form of, “How do I do _____?” Being able to roll up your sleeves and show them your methods, approaches, techniques, and tricks is a good way to share, but even more effective is to have them do the work with you watching alongside, coaching them though the task.
Knowledge questions often come in the form of, “What do you know about _____?” Being able to draw on various resources (e.g., websites, books, papers, research, patterns, etc.) has helped here. Frequently mentees aren’t looking for a specific answer, but rather a bunch of leads as to where they can gain the knowledge themselves.
Expertise questions often come in the form of, “How have you done this or handled this situation in the past?” This is where your experience will come into play. Sharing examples and anecdotal stories of similar experiences is what’s critical here. Being able to talk about similar projects, clients, or work challenges is what they need. Mentees are looking for guidance, advice, and answers so they have a path forward.
An interest in seeing others grow and in helping them get there
Part of this comes from being interested in ongoing learning and growth, but most of this is about being empathetic. You have to truly care about the person you are mentoring and really want to see him or her succeed.
Ability to provide constructive feedback
Constructive feedback is information-specific, issue-focused, and based on observations, and it can be either positive or negative. Mentoring should include feedback of this type and should include feedback on both hard and soft skills. Ideally, I suggest providing this feedback in person (email, IM, and Twitter aren’t good for feedback).
I’ll admit that I tend to be a talker, the first one to often chime in. But mentorship has required me to spend more time listening rather than talking. And when I do talk, I try to ask more open questions to get to deeper insights; these start with what, why, how, describe. Like my 6-year-old I’ve learned to love the word “why” and ask it repeatedly, searching for more detail.
Lessons from Mentorship
Overall, here’s what I’ve learned:
Mentorship is hard work. It requires work from both parties. Those interested in mentoring shouldn’t take it lightly. You need to put time towards it, and be accessible and available when your mentee needs you (which might mean late-night emails or last-minute requests over IM or Skype). That said, things that are hard often pay the largest dividends, and doing things that are hard has helped me grow and be a better mentor and manager to others.
Remember to make time. Your day-to-day work, family, and other activities are all vying for your time. Remembering to work in mentorship time is also important. Depending on your approach to mentorship, you might choose to set up a recurring meeting with each other, or keep it informal and ad-hoc. If you do go the ad-hoc approach I suggest adding a reminder for yourself to reach out. Nothing sours a mentor/mentee relationship like the mentee having to always reach out and start discussion.
Don’t take on more than you can handle. The first person I mentored was a bit further along in her career, so our discussions were more mature and I found it easy to support her ongoing development. But I thought I could handle another mentee at the same time and soon found out that two was too much to handle. The demands of mentorship, combined with work, other networking and life can be a bad mix if you don’t find balance. Luckily (perhaps), in the end my first mentee moved onto a new career in a new city and decided she wanted someone nearer geographically. But balancing multiple mentees I wouldn’t suggest unless you have little else going on in your life.
There’s as much to learn as there is to share and teach. The mentees I’ve had have been much stronger academically in the field of UX. They have deep research backgrounds and a set of skills I may never have. Take the opportunity to turn the table every now and then and have your mentee play mentor. One of my mentees has showed me lots of helpful Visio and OmniGraffle tricks, making me more efficient at executing on wireframes and other deliverables. Another continues to be a great sounding board for approaches to problem solving and facilitation. Seek out opportunities to learn from others and gain new skills. The end result for me has been a bigger toolkit that I can pull from, great books and resources I may have otherwise never discovered, and new ways of doing things that I can apply to my work.
Figure out how you can apply mentorship skills in your day-to-day work. Most people leave companies because of their bosses. Leverage some of the skills you have learned and apply them to your interactions with your own staff or other team members. Make a point of being people focused, like a good mentor is, rather than task focused, and watch your team blossom.
It’s fun. I’ve enjoyed sharing my experience, but the most fun has been the collaboration with someone equally excited and interested in this field of work. I highly recommend it to others and look forward to spending more time with my mentees, learning and teaching.
Where to Find a Mentor/Mentee
So where do you find a mentor or mentee?
- The IxDA has a mentorship program. Check with your local chapter as some run mentorship events or visit the IxDA website to learn more. (UPDATE: Jon Kolko’s announcement on the program and the related forms appear to no longer be working)
- Talk to others in the community on Twitter, Facebook, Meetup, LinkedIn, or other online communities, or seek out local practitioners you know. I’ve found most of these groups have a few “newbies” excited to have a bit of ongoing support as they get started in their careers, or others that just want to support one another.
- Contact your local school that teaches UX or related disciplines. Offer up your time to volunteer or support others in their career development by being a mentor.