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Mentorship is essential to any environment and can be an extremely effective tool for you and your team. Everyone talks about mentorship, but few explain how it benefits managers, their teams, and your delivery. First, it's rewarding to help people learn. As they learn, they will be more effective, reducing costs, complexity, better scaling, etc. The more they know, the less guidance they'll need, which means their mentor can spend that time elsewhere (e.g., mentoring someone else). Or you can mentor someone, and then they can mentor someone else, and you can build up a network of mentors so your organization can scale.
On an individual level, mentorship is beneficial for new hires or transfers as it lets an experienced person on the team show them around, teach them what they need to know, and establish a culture of teaching and growth.
As a manager, that buys you several wins. First, some genuinely like teaching others. Teaching recharges their battery, giving you positive morale on the team. Not only does this help the mentee get up to speed quickly, but it allows the mentor to see that they're appreciated and recognized for their skills and expertise. A secondary benefit is that you and your team will develop a reputation for working to grow your team, leading to referrals and internal transfers.
Managers must always consider the long game, as this stabilizes their team, creates opportunities, and builds a strong reputation. After you've had this mentor/mentee relationship a few times, your team will see this as "the normal way we do business." I'll repeat this until I'm blue in the face, but you help people in their careers by investing in them, and your time is the most valuable investment you can make.
Finally, mentorship helps your delivery as it'll help onboard your new hires quickly. That means they'll be productive and part of the delivery faster. That means you'll have more capable people sooner, who may be able to deliver a better outcome more quickly. The other win is that you're explicitly coding that knowledge transfer is a critical task expected on the team. When someone leaves (for a new job or even an internal promotion), you're not stuck with a knowledge gap you'll have to overcome. You may be down a person, but you won't have lost the critical knowledge you can't replace.
Who are good mentors?
Your senior ICs are going to be among your best mentors. Finding someone from a similar background (geographic region, school, etc.) so they have something in common will build a good foundation. They'll know how to do the job, and you're trying to clone them as much as possible.
It's also helpful to find previous mentees who can explain the value of having a good mentor. You want someone who excels at mentorship, not someone who sees it as a burden. Those who see it as a burden make it easy for you to weed out the people who shouldn't move into leadership roles. Leadership is about teaching; if they're unwilling to spend time mentoring, they can't teach a team how to succeed.
How should you set up the mentoring relationship?
Don't overwhelm your mentors. It doesn't take much to kill a mentoring program, but the quickest way is to crush your mentors with too much IC work and pile on many mentorship responsibilities.
I've seen a firm that hired groups of several juniors at a time and then put them on a team with one mentor to "train them up." This plan failed from the get-go, as their mentor was immediately overwhelmed. Consequently, most of the juniors floundered and quit. It was a terrible setup with terrible results.
I prefer to set up two seniors for every junior on a team. That way, each senior spends 50% of their time with the junior member. The benefit for the junior members is that they interact with two seniors and get different views to compare immediately. If one of the seniors gets behind, it's easy to transition but not drop the ball altogether because you only have to make up 50% of a mentor, not a complete 100% in the 1:1 mentoring scenario.
Early Career Mentoring
For new hires (straight out of school or otherwise new to the workforce), setting them up with someone who's been doing the job for a while is good. Look for mentors with 5-7 years of job experience. Consider if you are a very senior person, as it's been so long since they had to learn from scratch that it might be tricky. You'll also have to work with the team you have unless you can borrow a mentor from another team.
Look for someone who can show new hires how to work at the company, do their job, provide guidance, and act as a role model. The role model aspect is vital because new junior hires can be highly impressionable and prone to their mentor's attitude and behaviors. If their mentor thinks it's okay to show up late at work, the junior will think it's okay to show up late. If they're always on time or early to a meeting, the junior will think that's the right way to act.
Ask your prospective mentor if they're interested in coaching up a junior employee; don't demand it. Juniors can be a handful because they still need to learn those behaviors and skills that "everyone already knows." They're challenging because they won't know "how we've always done it," but that's okay because challenge leads to evolution, which is how we grow as a team. But it takes the right mentorship personality to realize the junior asks questions because they don't know, not because they want to challenge the establishment. Of course, they may ask why things are done a certain way, but answering the why is part of being a leader in the company.
Mentors are leaders, even if not fully recognized, because they model the behavior you consider successful at your firm.
Mentoring a person who is changing industries
Acronyms and language can be wildly different for similar topics. For a person changing industries, a mentor can talk them through it over the first few months. While they have experience, the change in the industry will be different in how it operates and communicates.
Skills are transferrable, but the vocabulary and customs will differ significantly. For example, you'll see this most heavily with military personnel transitioning from military to civilian work. There is a crisp type of speech that you can detect after you've worked with military personnel for a while. They're precise in their use of language, with 24-hour time being the most obvious example. Yet, while talking about things in military time is more exact, I've found it is off-putting to civilians who aren't used to thinking of the clock that way. It doesn't make one side or the other better.
You will also see this with people who have worked for the government and then moved into the private sector. It may not be as extreme as the military case, but there is still significant adjustment they'll have to go through. Having a mentor who can coach them through their job transition helps immensely.
What should a mentor do?
Mechanically, there are several things a mentor can do to help a new hire adjust to the company. For example:
- Explain the history of the team.
- Explain the stakeholders and other personalities involved in the delivery.
- Orient the new hire to the department and how it relates to other departments.
- Model the expected behavior.
- Bridge the gaps in documentation that the new hire would otherwise have to figure out on their own.
- Help them understand the internal politics at the firm.
- Give them informal feedback on how they're doing on the job.
What should a mentor not do?
The best a mentor can do is tell the new hire what behavior they should emulate. They should not impose their work on the new hire. They shouldn't poison the new hire on team members. Even if you have team members who aren't performing well, it's the manager's job to handle performance concerns.
The mentor provides all the tools they need to succeed, but they shouldn't do their work for them (or coach them so heavily that the junior can coast). They also shouldn't do the junior's work for them. I've seen this happen when the junior isn't learning fast enough or isn't a good fit for their job.
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