No one starts their career as a mentor. Mission Tech Lead Zulqar Nain, for example, started at the company as a Fullstack Web Developer. But through conversations with the leads on his squad, especially Fadi Asfour and Issam Sedki, he was able to level-up enough to take on a leadership role himself.
That’s the abridged version of a good story with a happy ending. But for Zulqar, there were plenty of hard lessons to learn along the way. That’s why, after chatting with the new Lead about his experiences, we were inspired to write an article outlining some of the most important things to keep in mind for both mentors and mentees, but mostly the former. While it won’t remove all the bumps in your own road — necessary challenges that lead to growth — it will at least keep you confidently on the right path toward developing a mutually beneficial mentor-mentee connection.
Make Expectations Clear Upfront
Whether it’s a mentee’s first time navigating the rewarding mentorship experience, or they’ve had a few in their life already, it’s still essential to establish clear expectations for what can come out of the interactions.
For example, some might wrongly think a mentor is someone whose sole motivation is to benefit the mentee’s career. While mentorship can absolutely enhance and have a major net-positive impact on someone’s professional development, this is not the primary intention of mentorship. What mentors and mentees can get out of this relationship are many and varied, but to cite a few — strengthening existing networks, developing connections among like-minded individuals within a company, and mutual opportunities for learning and growth, both personal and professional.
Having a conversation about what a mentee can expect from the start will make the entire professional relationship develop more smoothly and beneficially. It’ll also give the mentor a chance to voice what they may expect from the relationship as well. This is, importantly, a two-way relationship after all.
Mission Tech Lead Fadi Asfour says, “For me, it’s learning about another person’s situation, understanding them, and most importantly, thinking about how I might feel and what I would do if I were in that situation.” Having a dialog up top will contribute to grounding this mutual empathy in the relationship.
Whether you have daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly check-ins, mentees and mentors alike will benefit from consistency. While adjustments can certainly be made depending on how the lives of both parties evolve, it’s best to set a regular time to check-in. This can help especially when mentor and mentee are feeling lower energy.
As Zulqar Nain puts it, “Even when we felt tired, by the end of our discussion, we both felt energized.”
Knowing that 3pm, Thursdays is your meeting time no matter what, for example, can prevent flaking on meetings and missing conversations which could benefit both mentee and mentor alike. And let’s be honest, if you miss one week, thinking, “It’s no big deal, we’ll just meet next week,” it becomes all too easy to miss the next week, and the next. Additionally, missing meetings without a very good reason can communicate to mentee and mentor alike that the other person isn’t all that interested in the relationship, or that the other views their meetings as a chore, rather than a mutually uplifting experience.
Set Mutual Goals
A mentor isn’t a director or commander over a mentee’s life. They’re not there to dictate what they should do. A mentor is there to have conversations and share their wisdom and opinions, making it clear that this is their position from their own unique experiences, not an Eternal Truth to be followed exactly.
So when setting goals for the mentee, they should similarly come from dialog and collaboration. Of course, many mentees will benefit from structure and accountability, which may aid in them reaching these goals, but the goals themselves should come organically from understanding where the mentee is in their life and career. It can also be discussed how best to facilitate the pursuit of these goals. For example, some may benefit from a more rigid structure with frequent check-ins, while others may work best when they feel more free to experiment, make their own mistakes, and learn from them.
Mentors Should Make Use of All Your Resources (And Know When They’re Really Needed)
Mentors shouldn’t hold back in using their resources to assist the mentee in the pursuit of their goals. Pull strings, call in favors, send introductory emails, acquire invites to conferences — whatever you can think of to help out within your professional powers.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the best mentorships encourage the mentee to reach down and tap into their own strengths and abilities to help themselves. A mentor’s role isn’t to take out all the hard work along the road to accomplishments, as the mentee may then doubt their own talents more than they ought to.
According to Asfour, “A valuable personal resource for any mentor [or mentee] is understanding themselves, what triggers them, what is it they don’t like, and most importantly why. This will help them deal with very frustrating situations within the team and especially with clients.”
Creating an environment in which this kind of self-understanding can flourish on both sides will make for the best mentorship, so don’t rush in to rescue the mentee before this can develop.
There’s a learned art to understanding how to not hold back any resources when they’re called for, while not tapping into them to remove the kind of challenges that will lead to your mentee’s growth. It’s a lesson that mentors can only learn from experience.
Be Real About Your Own Limitations and Biases
One of the most difficult things to do in any connection in which there is an uneven power dynamic is to self-reflect on your own biases and limitations. Whether you’re a professor, manager, or even just a bit higher up on the social hierarchy of any group, you may feel a bit of a flattering rush from your influential position. It’s thus the hallmark of a star mentor that they’re able to say to themselves (and their mentees), “I don’t know everything.”
The lessons you’ve learned in life, both personal and professional, are hard-earned. You studied, trained, had hands-on experience, and took on all kinds of challenges your mentee simply has not.
Or have they?
It’s folly to go into a mentor-mentee relationship thinking you know everything and your mentee knows nothing. They too have had their own experiences, no matter how many years or rankings junior compared to you they may be.
And even if they were the most green rookies in the group, it doesn’t mean that your personal path through life has direct and infallible relevance to your mentee.
Try to take words like “never” and “always” and “should” out of your mentorship vocabulary. As Mission Tech Lead Fadi Asfour puts it, “These words are very restrictive and can limit your conversations. Humility goes a long way.” Without undercutting your confidence and assertiveness, keep an open mind that what you may suggest to your mentee may not be helpful to this particular individual.
That’s why it’s so crucial to center regular, organic conversations to your mentor-mentee meetings. After truly getting to know your mentee, you will both have a better idea as to what the mentee truly needs, in addition to collaboratively developing goals that you may then formulate plans to help them achieve.
While you, as a mentor, absolutely have helpful insight and resources to share with your mentee and should feel confident in that, the true sign of a great leader is the ability to stay humble. If you do, you will likely find that your mentee may have just as much to teach you as you do them. For example, professors often find that no matter how many times they teach the same text, the dialog around the text with even the youngest students can continually lead to new revelations about the text. It’s what keeps people excited to pursue these kinds of guidance roles.
Follow the above and mentor and mentee alike will learn and grow from this relationship.
And if you like this philosophy and want to join or work with a network of senior software developer talent backed by this kind of leadership and mentorship, read more about Mission.