If you are an engineer, then in your professional life, you must have started mentoring at one time. Even if you haven’t so far, you will find yourself mentoring one day. Mentoring is not limited to engineering but applies to any leadership role, as the main goal of any leader is to create more leaders, not followers, and that needs strong mentoring skills. In my professional life (as an engineer), I was lucky enough to get a strong mentor when I started my career. My mentor helped me build the first successful step for myself and looking back, he really guided me than teaching me.
I was also fortunate to be able to mentor a good number of people in my life. When done right, mentoring is the most amazing and fulfilling experience, for the mentor as well as the mentee. Especially if the mentee is someone fresh out of college, then as a mentor, you are setting them on the right track for rest of their professional life and that in itself is an invaluable experience.
Mentoring is also not a right but a privileged responsibility. I learned a few things from mentoring in my life, and I will try to articulate in this blog. You might be mentoring someone fresh out of college, or one of your newly joined teammate who has years of experience, mentoring do’s and don’ts pretty much don’t change. If you are someone who does mentor often or will get that privilege soon, then this is something you might want to keep in mind.
Mentoring is fun, make most out of the opportunity
I have seen people procrastinate mentoring as they either see it as “one more task” with no benefit out of it. Now if such people mentor anyone, then it remains not only mechanical in nature (just following the process) but also poor experience for the mentee. Imagine you are mentoring someone fresh passed out of college with least of interest in doing any mentoring, would you like to be a mentee in such cases?
Today science proves that helping others increases the dopamine level in your body, and fulfillment which comes from that is invaluable. Mentoring is not different but helping somebody, and that somebody may be fresher joining your team or experience colleague trying to get familiar with your team culture. So if you want a sense of good productive day then becoming a good active mentor is one thing you can do.
Don’t teach but show opportunities to learn
"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." - Lao Tzu
Mentoring is often confused with teaching. The goal of you as a mentor is to show your mentee avenues to learn new things and not teach them. If your mentee has a problem, then you as a mentor is not supposed to solve that yourself but show your mentee how they can solve it. You might not want to rip off opportunity for your mentee to learn something and the satisfaction of solving something on their own. You can always guide your mentee on various new technologies or tools you are using in your project, point them to various online tutorials, etc. In a professional setting, where you most likely are to do mentoring, when you spoon feed your mentee then you are essentially crippling them by making them your dependents. Ask a simple question to yourself – as a mentee, would you like to be taught or like to be guided for a particular situation or problem mentee is facing?
Set discipline with own example
Often people in mentoring responsibility give a pep talk to mentee on what they should do but never do it themselves. Make sure you don’t fall into this trap. Set discipline for yourself for things you want your mentee to follow. If you want your mentee to show up in time to meetings, you should first show up in time.
Mentoring affects both ways, so at some time, your mentee will reflect most of the good as well as bad habits you exhibit. In my professional career, I have seen some extremely talented engineers, but they were jerks to rest of the team (would never respect anyone else in the team), and when those engineers mentored someone, mentee exhibited all good and bad qualities of a mentor (mentee ended up being jerk too). So mentoring is a good opportunity for self-improvement too, and mentee will follow the track!
Set a bigger picture
Your mentee is likely working with you for the next project, most organizations do that to enable mentoring. Take that opportunity to show them the big picture. Make them aware abour the team culture, good processes you follow and any reasoning behind them. If you work with fresh college grads, or even sometimes newly joined colleague whom you are mentoring will be new to your product and domain, so it is your responsibility to guide them to learn this new domain. You have to set clear, bigger picture for any task mentee does. It could be as small as explaining why we are doing this project, how particular feature you are working on will be used by the customer, or why certain design is chosen over others, etc. Depending on the experience level of your mentee, she or he might know this already but nevertheless crosscheck they have a clear bigger picture.
There are studies done which show that people are more passionate about their work when they have a higher sense of purpose. Your responsibility as a mentor is to set that purpose. You will be surprised to see how this simple conscious effort can affect mentee in a big positive way.
Give and take feedback
A good leader has to be a good mentor, and continuous concrete feedback is the most important aspect of leadership. When you are mentoring someone, you are essentially helping them get on the right track. Your feedback has to be concrete and concise, something easy to work upon. If you want mentee to learn something, then point them to resources they can avail (e.g., a good book). If she/he does repetitive mistakes, then show them the pattern and tell them possible ways you think will help them avoid doing that. Your feedback is like essentially like a compass keeping them on the right track.
Also, as equal to giving feedback is taking feedback too. In a typical corporate setting, you might do mentoring for a specified period, and at the end, don’t forget to ask your mentee on any improvements you can do as a mentor. Mentoring is after all avenue to learn and improve for you too as a mentor.
Keep your emotions in check
Emotional quotient (EQ) is treated as the most important aspect for leaders these days. There are numerous studies which prove that when it comes to a leadership role, EQ matters most than IQ. Mentoring is no exception to that. Once I saw a mentor who once got frustrated as mentee chose a different tool to do something than what mentor originally wanted him to do. Now instead of showing mentee why tool mentor wanted was preferred one and how it benefits the project (so mentee has a bigger, clear picture), mentor ended up bursting his frustration on the mentee. Such emotional outbursts are unnecessary and dent relations. We are, after all, human beings working together, not bots, and emotions play an important role in professional interpersonal relations too.
As a mentor, it's your responsibility to make mentee feel welcomed and respected in whatever they are doing. There are multiple good books on EQ (e.g., Working with emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman) and make sure to check out at least one.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. Covey
People will always have an opinion and ideas, and sometimes they are useful for your project while sometimes they are not. In fact, a good mentor’s mentee will have a lot more ideas as mentee feels more valued in the project and so they will feel more comfortable sharing them. Be an active listener and let mentee share those ideas. Even if you can’t use it, explain clearly to your mentee as to why you are sticking with what you are doing (e.g., you may have researched on the particular library to use in your project while mentee thinks library you rejected was more suitable). Now such explanations most times won’t take more than 10-15 minutes of your time, but that discussion will leave your mentee with a sense of being heard and their opinion respected.
These are some of the things I learned over time and again from mentoring people in various experience range. I hope you find this useful. Happy mentoring!