In the October 2021 issue of Certification Magazine, we took a look at mentoring programs and how they can be helpful for IT workers who need assistance in their pursuit of IT certifications, in mastering the server room, and in learning how to fit in — as well as move up — in an organization.
The examination this time is on the other side of the table: We’ll look at some steps an IT professional can take to increase the odds of successful mentorship. While the primary purpose of mentoring is intended to make mentees better, it has a significant impact on mentors as well.
Quite often, the best way to master a topic is to try to teach it to another. When you do this, you tend to step back, look at the body of knowledge before you with a different set of eyes, realize where you are weak, and question how you can deepen your own understanding.
Undoubtedly, you need to have solid technical skills in order to pass those skills on to someone else. The soft skills involved in mentoring — the people skills — are equally important. While the technical skills being mentored will differ situationally (studying for a certain certification exam, focusing on a weakness in a particular area of system administration, and so forth), relationship skills are the same in any environment, and worth examining here.
In talking with several IT professionals who currently serve as mentors, or have done so in the past, the following topics rose to the top. These are their suggestions for how to be effective at mentoring, organized by that stage of the mentoring relationship at which they apply.
At the start of the mentoring team-up
In setting the ground rules at the beginning of the relationship, be assertive, but not aggressive. Make sure there is a clear understanding by avoiding weak words and phrases like “sometime in the next few weeks,” or “anywhere between a few minutes and an hour.” Think through exactly what the plan for moving forward is and spell it out: Leave no room for guessing, surprises, or assumptions.
The goals you establish early on can help you identify successes and keep each of you on track. They also force you to set priorities and establish direction. Being able to put a goal in writing and agree on it can make that desire more tangible and separate the possible from the daydream.
To be effective and productive, a goal should have a quantifiable component, so that you will know when it has been reached, as well as a timeframe assigned for accomplishing it. Employ active listening when setting mutual goals, particularly at the kickoff meeting: Don’t assume you already know what the mentee’s priorities and desires are.
Listen to what the individual you will be working with has to say and write it down. The act of writing is a visible cue that conveys a feeling of respect: you think what you are hearing is important enough to take the time to document it.
As you then work through the mentoring sessions, refer back to your notes from time to time and directly address the mentee’s concerns and aspirations. Make sure they feel (and recognize) that what they wanted to work on is indeed being taken into consideration.
Moving forward — or moving on
It is important to understand that there is nothing binding about the mentor/mentee relationship. The relationship exists because you want to help and someone else can use your help. If it is a good fit, the relationship can last for years, but if it is a bad fit, it may die a very quick and untimely death.
That death can occur early on when you’re still trying to find the right way to work with this individual, and it can be wholly based on their perception that it is not a good fit. No matter how committed you are to being the best mentor ever, when the mentee is no longer interested in continuing the relationship, it ends.
This can be done formally, but is often preceded by some telltale signs: a planned meeting gets skipped, the mentee doesn’t answer the phone and won’t return your messages, and so forth. It is easy in such a situation to feel slighted. If you don’t have the right fit from the start, however, it is best to let things end and find another person to help.
As a mentor, you must uncover and focus on your mentee’s IT weakness: the gap between where they are and where they want to be. That gap needs to be the focus of everything. Swapping stories, buying lunch, and sharing the latest funny TikTok videos might make you liked, but it doesn’t help make anyone’s IT career better off in the long run. Share your knowledge and skillset and encourage your mentee — there is power in reinforcement — to be better.
Understand that rapport requires sharing a common point of view. To this end, you should avoid using buzzwords and industry slang until you are certain that the person you are mentoring is at a level of knowledge to understand what you are saying.
Sometimes, buzzwords and slang can be intimidating, and the mentee may be too afraid to point out that they don’t know exactly what you are saying. You can never go wrong by defining a term they may or may not already know the first time you use it.
While mentoring is ongoing
Accept that those you are mentoring may not always tell you the truth and/or be willing to immediately share their shortcomings and weaknesses with you. Part of this can be a defense mechanism (not wanting to come across as unintelligent) and part of it can be that they aren’t sure how to respond.
If you ask an individual what they would like to learn about, and they respond along the lines of “I don’t know,” then it can mean that they genuinely do not know. It can also mean that they don’t want to tell you, or that they don’t think you can help them with it anyway — so why waste the time?
So much of being a good mentor requires establishing trust. Once trust has been established, then you will get a sense of when you can ask a follow-up question and when you need to take responses at face value and move on. If, for example, the mentee is uncertain where to focus, a mentor who has established trust can suggest areas for the mentee to spend more time focusing on.
Bear in mind that you don’t need to be all-knowing to help someone else. As a mentor, you may have a tendency to want to show off how much you know and immediately blurt out all the answers to every question that comes up. A mentee can often gain more, however, by researching, experimenting, and then sharing what they have learned, than just by being spoon-fed.
It can also be productive for you to point out that there may be more than one solution to a given problem. If the mentee does not discover this through their own research, then it might be helpful to assign them the task of gathering more information.
There is a natural tendency to want to educate and share, but one way to think about encouraging growth is to visualize how doctors often interact with patients. Rarely does a doctor give a dissertation about the anatomy of the body the moment a problem is described. Many physicians will instead ask short follow-up questions that let encourage the patient to explore their situation.
You can take a similar approach by incorporating phrases like “I don’t understand,” or “Can you help me with that,” or “What do you mean, exactly” into your dialogue. In other words, even if you have every answer at your fingertips, sometimes it can be productive to let the mentee pursue his or her own explorations and process of discovery.
Wrapping things up
Most mentoring comes to an end. The mentee passes the certification exams(s) you were helping them prepare for, they get promoted elsewhere, or it is just time to pursue other opportunities. Something should officially mark the end of this mentor/mentee relationship.
What that something is should be based on the outcome of the mentoring as well as the initial reason for it. For example, if it is time to end because goals have been achieved, then celebrate that achievement. In every case, a postmortem should be done by you to assess how well it went, what worked well, and what you should do differently next time.
While a significant portion of such a postgame wrap-up should be internally focused, collecting feedback and suggestions from the mentee can be invaluable. You may think, for instance, that your humor is what made the relationship work so well, while the other party may have wished more than anything that you would stop telling the same old stale jokes over and over again. The only way to see the relationship from both sides is to ask that other side and earnestly listen.
There isn’t a magic formula that can make you a great mentor in every circumstance. On the other hand, having a willingness to help, an ability to listen, and an openness to criticism will go a long way.