A series of zines about the ways organizations coordinate
A mentor can be a huge boon to your career development, but you’ll need to come prepared
When you’re trying to land your first job or looking to make a big leap, it’s helpful to talk to someone who can provide guidance and answer your questions. That sort of relationship can accelerate your efforts, but only if you proceed thoughtfully.
Whether you’re looking for a formal mentoring relationship or just hoping for a quick call or coffee with someone already in the industry, treat the process as you would any major project. Take the time to prepare, and set a specific goal for what you’d like to learn and achieve.
The most effective people come prepared with answers to common questions along with the questions they wish to ask. Here is how I approach it when mentoring someone or when looking for a mentor myself.
A quick aside: A lot of us love the opportunity to help others grow, and will jump at the chance if we have the time and energy. So don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you think might be able to help you.
What are you looking to gain from our conversation?
Are you looking to build a personal network, or are there specific questions you hope I can answer? Both are perfectly valid, and it isn’t necessarily binary, but it’s good to be clear about what you’re after early on. For example, I’m not generally interested in networking (meeting people just to connect; I can find this draining). I am interested in meeting people I can learn from and whom I may be able to benefit in turn.
These goals are both good, but the purpose and results are very different. In my experience, the best long term network is built on early conversations that are genuine and candid. (No different from any other valuable relationships in our lives.)
Looking to learn?
Here are some questions people have asked me that prompted great conversations:
- Do I need to specialize as a designer or should I be a generalist?
- I’m worried about joining a startup as the only designer for my first job; should I join a bigger company instead?
- Do I really need to network to find a job?
- I eventually want to do _____. What steps should I follow to get there?
What I’ll often ask
I don’t have a script for these conversations, but there are some foundational topics that always come up. Inevitably, I’ll want to learn:
- How you think I can help. Seriously, why me? Is my career path similar to what you’re interested in? Do you feel I can shed light on areas that you aren’t familiar with in the hiring process? Maybe you feel that I can connect you with someone who can help you move forward. All are 100% valid and worth talking through.
- If you’re looking for a new role, I want to know what you’re looking for and why. Now, you may not know exactly what role to go for. That’s okay, we can dig into that, but it does require that you have some general thoughts in mind. For example, if you’re a designer, are you interested in landing your first design job, or are you perhaps trying to understand a different, related role that might be more interesting?
- Your goals, both long term and short term. If you’re just starting out, you may be focused on finding your first job, which is a different conversation from someone who wants to talk through whether they want to become a manager or switch to a different field.
- Why you’ve chosen the field you’re in. It’s possible that we’ll discover you aren’t as excited about it as you thought you would be. In those cases, we may switch gears to talk through a different, and hopefully better, career path.
How would you like to talk?
This may sound odd, but the clearer you are regarding how you’d like to meet, the easier it will be to get things set up. Some key things to think about:
- Meeting in person has huge benefits for communication and building a connection, but scheduling can be hard. It may also be uncomfortable for some people to meet a total stranger. Be open to a phone or video call initially. I’ve even had some great conversations in Slack.
- Decide how much time you think you’ll need. A good target is 30–45 minutes, not counting travel time. If you have a good conversation, you can always extend or set up another time to meet.
- Make it convenient if you’re meeting in person. As the mentor is investing their time to help you, do your best to make it as easy as possible for them. Ask which times would work best and the area of town they would prefer.
- Think about the location. Provide a couple of options that are public, like a library or coffee shop, and avoid bars. You may eventually be comfortable to meet over a beer, but now isn’t the time to add alcohol to the dynamic.
- Be flexible. Calendars can get overbooked and on occasion, a high-priority conflict will come up at the last minute, so you may have to reschedule.
What to avoid
- Hopefully, this is clear by now, but do not come unprepared, expecting the other person to have a list of things to teach you.
- Don’t be slow to reply. If you get a response from someone willing to help you, jump on the opportunity quickly.
- On the other side, be flexible on their response times. Don’t badger them if you don’t receive an immediate response. If you don’t hear back within a week, send a polite follow-up.
- Don’t view this as a transaction. Even if someone isn’t able to give you their time now, set a foundation for the future, when they may have more flexibility.
- Do not view this as a dating opportunity. Seriously. I’ve had friends and colleagues (all women) who were put in an awkward situation where men requesting mentorship thought it was more than that.
Updates are good
Mentors love to hear how things are progressing. Personally, it surprises me when people I’ve met don’t follow up to ask additional questions or let me know how things are going. If you’ve met with someone who is interested in helping you with your career, they’ve chosen to invest in you, so take advantage of the opportunity to cement the relationship.
Mentorship is symbiotic
The design community is pretty tight-knit. Building a strong relationship with a mentor can pay huge dividends in the long run, as your mentors can play a key role in your network, connecting you to others and possibly even providing you opportunities directly. Who knows, down the road, you may be able to return the favor!
For the mentor, the investment of time and energy is often exciting, and for many of us, helping awesome people like you take their next step is a way that we give back to the community and acknowledge those who’ve helped us with our careers.
“six core needs researchers find are most important for humans at work”
Instead, build an environment where they actively take responsibility.
Many books about management and countless leadership coaches exhort us to “give people permission to act” or “give people permission to fail”. That sounds good, and the statements are well-intentioned, but giving permission is not leadership, it’s simply a different way to wield authority while maintaining control.
Giving permission isn’t good enough — you must craft an environment where teams and individuals are fully empowered to act.
Better than that — they’re expected to act.
But, what if they make the wrong decision?!
Yep, that’ll happen. Failure is a real possibility. Then again, making all the right choices doesn’t guarantee success in a competitive environment either.
Telling people that they have permission means that they still derive all of their authority from you. They aren’t empowered, they’re merely borrowing yours.
That’s not good enough.
Pro-tip: give people a bit more responsibility than you’re comfortable with. You’ll be pleasantly surprised more often than not.
Now, you (we) are accountable for the decisions of our teams. But, so are the people on our teams, and they should have the right to make hard calls, lay out their choices and defend the paths they choose.
It should be expected that they make hard calls.
They shouldn’t do it in a vacuum (that’s where we come in). Their responsibility includes knowing how and when to use the resources, knowledge, and energy of everyone at hand.
But they get to make the call.
It can be scary, especially if you see failure looming, but we only get to step in if something will be a catastrophic mistake. And the truth is, wrong choices will almost never be anywhere close to that point. A little painful perhaps, but that’s good pain.
That’s the pain we all learn from.
You aren’t shedding all responsibility
There are times where you do need to clearly communicate that a decision isn’t theirs to make. After all, you’re in your role because you have the information and experience needed for tough calls. Be clear in those cases. Solicit their thoughts and then bring them along for the ride so that they learn why you did what you did.
It’s important to recognize that there’s a graduated scale of responsibility.
For example, if you’re hiring a new team member, you, as the hiring manager are ultimately accountable for choosing who gets the offer. The interviewing team should provide input and insight into that decision, but they don’t get to make it. You’re on the hook for that one.
On the other hand, if one of your managers is hiring for her team, it’s her call to make, not yours.
It’s important to recognize that there’s a graduated scale of responsibility. An Associate Designer doesn’t have the experience to make the calls of a Senior Designer. A Developer may not have the knowledge to architect an entirely new system, and likely shouldn’t be setting the go-to-market strategy. You need to know your team and set expectations accordingly.
How to craft the right environment
This is where the hard work comes in. To do this right requires that you spend countless hours, days and months modeling the behavior you want. You have to explicitly create opportunities for success within your team by getting out of the way. Here are some tips:
The most important decision you can make is to hand decisions off to people on your team and to build the right environment, you need to ensure that your team sees that you trust another with it.
Say you’re in a planning meeting, explicitly ask a team member to make the call: “Marissa, can you please research that aspect and decide which tool we should adopt?”
Clearly communicate your expectations
You can’t just toss a decision to someone on your team, you need to ensure they understand exactly what is needed and by when. They also need to know what resources are available to help.
For example: “Marissa, can you please research that aspect and decide which tool we should adopt by next Friday? Cameron helped us drive adoption for the last platform, so she’d likely have some good insight, and of course, I’m happy to help if needed.”
Appreciate the work your team picks up
And not just in your head. Make sure your team, your colleagues and your boss know that people on your team are stepping up. This isn’t about praise, though that may be a part of it. Instead, the goals are to elevate the decision maker in the eyes of the full team and reinforce the environment that you’re building.
While it may be in a team meeting, a one-on-one with your boss or an offhand conversation over lunch, saying something like “Marissa’s taking point on that one, so you should connect with her.” It may not sound like much, but it communicates a huge amount of trust and respect.
Remember that the projects don’t have to be big
It’s easy to get bogged down thinking about what you can and can’t hand off. But here’s the thing, there are a ton of small decisions that others can make, which naturally fall into your lap.
So yeah, while you do need to allow your team members to make bigger decisions, providing them the opportunity to make the smaller decisions can go a long way too.
For example, “Morgan, thanks for taking point on unifying our style guide. While you’re pulling it all together, please make a call on the name for this component and let us know what it is.”
Acknowledge (maybe even celebrate) lessons learned from failure
The ol’ “give them permission to fail” is not something you can really do. Telling people they have permission may sound like a trap to some folks or a business platitude worthy of being printed on an “inspirational” poster to be hung in the breakroom.
Plus, if you have a high performing team (I hope you do!), they likely won’t give themselves permission to fail, much less look to you for it.
Instead, we need to model failure as an opportunity to learn and iterate. And transforming failure into opportunity starts with us. As a leader, you need to visibly acknowledge your mistakes and explain what you’ve learned from them.
And you need to do this repeatedly: “Hey everyone, I messed up on that last round of interviews. I made the decision to extend the offer before getting your feedback. Luckily we all agreed, but that was a big miss on my part. Next time I’ll be sure we get together and talk through our candidates.”
The next layer is encouraging your senior team members to do the same, to model the behavior for the rest of the team and show that failure isn’t paired with punishment.
With responsibility comes freedom
Delegating decisions frees you up to work on the bigger picture, solving the more significant challenges, while simultaneously providing opportunities to your team for growth.
And there’s no stronger indication to someone on your team that they’re growing than for you to tell them “I trust your call on this. Let me know how I can help.”
As a leader, you’re expected to make key decisions. That’s why you have the title and that’s why they give you the paycheck. Some of those decisions come down to trusting your team to make many of those decisions. You’ll likely be surprised when they make a different call than you would have, only to find that it was better than your take.
Embrace that. It shows tremendous growth for the team and for you as a leader. Over time, you should be helping each person on the team to make better, and bigger decisions.
That’s true leadership.
P.S. your best and brightest are already doing this, whether you know it or not.