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Mentoring 101

What is all this mentoring stuff and why should I care?

9/2/2015 12:00:35 AM | After about 10 years of working at IBM my manager told me that I needed to mentor other employees: “It will be good for your career.” Not knowing anything about mentoring, I called the technical leader I respected most and asked him how to mentor. “Beats me,” he said. “I just talk to people cause they tell me too.” Clearly there is a dearth of information on mentoring and how to do it.

What Is Mentoring?

Mentoring is about building relationships in your company that are focused on developing individuals. There is value to the company and the individual. People involved in mentoring perform better; as a result they are often paid better. They are often more loyal to the company because people aren’t loyal to a corporation but to relationships. Since mentored employees have a person that they can talk to about their world, they generally have higher job satisfaction. Mentors can also help identify jobs that have a better fit for the mentee’s skills, shepherding them to jobs that will increase their satisfaction and provide the company more value for the money spent on an employee.

Mentoring Is Not Coaching

There is a distinct difference between mentoring and coaching. In many organizations people do job coaching instead of mentoring. In a coaching environment the focus is on doing the best possible job. A coach wants to help a person do the best possible work for a particular job. The mentor is focused on a relationship that develops a person throughout his or her career. Mentors are focused on careers; coaches are focused on jobs.

Do I Need a Mentor?

Some people don’t want or need a mentor. These rugged individualists will rise or fall on their own. If you are wondering if you need a mentor, ask yourself:

  • Am I happy with my career trajectory?
  • Do I understand the culture of the company?
  • Do I understand the politics of the company?
  • Am I effective at moving the company?
  • Do I understand every aspect of my job?
  • Do I have all of the education I need to be effective?
  • Do I focus on my career?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, perhaps a mentor would help. If you answer no to multiple questions perhaps you should be seeking multiple mentors, as no one person can help in all of these areas.

Should I Be a Mentor?

Being a mentor requires an investment of time and effort. Those efforts often provide value to both the mentor and mentee. If you are wondering if mentoring is for you, ask yourself:

  • What have you learned in the company?
  • What regrets do you have?
  • What would you do differently if you had a do over?
  • Are the junior members making mistakes?
  • Do you know of someone who could be doing more?
  • Do you want to demonstrate leadership and give back?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you should consider mentoring.

OK, I Should Mentor. How Do I Do It?

Mentors have many roles. Mentors should:

  • Be teachers. They should be able to explain different jobs and roles. If you don’t know much about one, leverage your network to find someone who can explain to your mentee what the role is like. This leads to the next thing you should do.
  • Share their network. You need to expose your mentee to the people that you know. This gives them a leg up in the company and allows them to develop new sources of information. This is a two-way street. Mentees should also share their network. This will give you insight into the tools, technology and perspective of the newer employees. It keeps you connected.
  • Be focused on building skills. Your mentee has come to you with a set of skills. Your job is to enhance and diversify those skills. Young employees often focus on a specific technology or set of skills that the business has driven. Your job is to make sure they do not become a one-trick pony.
  • Encourage mentees to take risks. People tend to find something and stick with it. They become comfortable with what they know and don’t know. Comfortable people don’t grow; they stagnate. Mentors should be challenging their mentees to grow and develop.
  • Help sort out office politics. The office is often rife with nuances that can be missed by the uninitiated. Mentors need to advise their mentees about the ramifications of their decisions.
What to Do

That list of things is kind of scary. There is a lot. How does someone make sure they are covering all of that? Don’t panic, a few basic steps include:

  • Work on your mentee’s career. People don’t focus on their career. If you have monthly meetings with your mentee, use part of them as a career discussion. What has been done to move your mentee forward in their career? It’s OK if nothing has been done this month. Some months are like that. Of course if nothing happens every month then there’s a problem. If you use those meetings as checkpoints and deadlines, it can move people forward.
  • Identify goals with your mentees. To succeed you need a goal. Without a goal you can’t create a plan. Success rarely comes to people who are just wandering around. Often mentees haven’t thought enough about where they want to be. Giving mentees an idea of what the business has to offer and a goal to get there is often one of the most important roles a mentor can play.
  • Give the mentee responsibility. People do not excel if they are sheltered. Good mentors give their mentees an opportunity to run something. Making someone responsible for something gives him or her an opportunity to shine. The more successful they are, the more responsibility they should get.
  • Get them to mentor. Mentoring develops people. Pushing your mentees to become mentors enable them to learn more. Mentors often learn and grow alongside their mentees.
  • Be patient. Often the things you give your mentee to do is something you could do on your own (and probably faster). Give them an opportunity to grow. Perhaps their solution is different from your and might even be better. Just because it has worked a particular way for you doesn’t mean that it is the only way. Besides, allowing them to work through a problem helps them to learn more than solving the problem. It gives them an opportunity to build relationships.
  • Have them shadow you. Pick a day that is representative for you and give them the opportunity to see you in action. Give them time to ask why you did what you do. Talk about alternatives with them. Sometimes they will surprise you with options you hadn’t considered.
  • Help them with documentation. Certifications, promotion packages, letters of recommendation, all of these things require more than just lists of things people have done. They require finesse and wording that describes context and value of contributions. Technical people tend to have a hard time describing their value. As a mentor you are there to help them document their value. You have to ensure that the documents are not only accurate and persuasive but also well written and free of grammatical errors. A little attention to detail can differentiate your mentee from other possible candidates.
The Most Important Part of Your Job Will Be Ignored

Your bosses will never give you credit for your mentee’s success. They shouldn’t; your mentee’s successes are their own. The fact that you have helped them will go unnoticed by everyone, even in some cases by your mentees themselves, so why bother?

There is an indescribable feeling seeing one of your mentees succeed. You find the diamond hidden in their makeup. You bring that diamond to the surface and polish it till it shines. Then you watch as people recognize that diamond for what it is. You have not only helped someone succeed, you have increased the chances for the company’s success.

Frank De Gilio is a Distinguished Engineer from IBM’s World Wide Client Technology Centers with a global focus on client enterprise infrastructures. He is the IBM Systems Chief Architect for Cloud Computing.

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