You might not know what the next mile looks like, but you know the next step.
A few months back, our Head of Front-End Development detailed his approach to mentoring developers. This post provided universal points about what it means to be a good mentor. (If you would like to read that first please click here).
We wanted to follow on from the insightful points he raised by discussing the other side of this relationship, how to be a good mentee. There is endless literature detailing how to be a great mentor but significantly less instruction for those seeking a mentor. This seems counterintuitive as the relationship should predominantly be fuelled by the mentee's efforts, but I will explain this more later.
In order to provide the answers I sought, several managers within Nova took the time to meet with me and discuss what they consider to be the key points for being a good mentee, from the perspective of a successful mentor. Here are these points:
The most crucial point that all interviewees highlighted was that the mentee must be engaged and the one truly driving the relationship. No one is going to magically appear and provide you with answers. As the mentee you want the information a mentor can provide and have actively sought out the help and guidance of someone with more experience than yourself.
You must have honest intentions with yourself and your mentor about what this relationship will provide to both parties because no one wants to waste their time. The mentor can provide advice and direction, but at the end of the day it is the mentee who must put in the work and put in the hours to actually achieve their goals; if they do not then everyone’s time is being wasted. Think of the ancient Greek Myth of Sisyphus, forever doomed to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down when he nears the top. It is infuriating to feel like your time could have been spent better, for both the mentor and mentee.
Ideally the relationship would have a 50/50 give and take but that is not the case as it is not truly balanced in this way. One individual can provide something that the other needs, and it is up to that second individual to be self-driven and prove that they are in a place to receive this help. While a good mentor does also reach out, it is more expected that they will give back with the same level of effort that they have received from the mentee.
From the mentee’s side, know that this is an investment in yourself. Get-rich-quick schemes never work and that mentality will soon burn out. The best long-term course of action to find a successful career is to either a) Find something you really enjoy doing and try to make money out of it, or b) If a. fails, find something you’re really good at and make money out of that. These paths take the money problem out of the equation, allowing you to focus on getting better at something you either love or are really good at. This passion for your career will automatically mean you put more effort into your work, which will ultimately give you better results.
The best kind of mentor/mentee relationship is not strictly professional, there is a friendship there. It is likely to naturally bloom as you are two people bonding over shared interests, but also that added social contract will encourage further investment and engagement beyond a student/teacher dynamic because you truly care about one another. While some people might prefer to have a professional split, in our experience the combination of friendship and mentorship provides the best results.
Furthermore, ensuring the relationship is built with the foundation of friendship secures the longevity of it; after all your career should be seen as a marathon not a sprint. In the same way that you do not run a marathon all in one go - you take it one step at a time - the same can be said for your career. Similarly, when you hit a metaphorical brick wall in life, you can get past it the same way you do when you hit a mental brick wall while running, by having someone at your side like a coach who has been through it and can tell you that what you are feeling is normal, guiding you through. Having this external person to guide you can make a world of difference. Through this marathon of life, having the right people by your side to help and support you is the key to success.
Nothing will change if you remain silent...
We all suffer from imposter syndrome sometimes - the feeling you get when you doubt your own abilities and feel like a fraud - and for most people it rears its ugly head most during the workday. It's that little voice in your head that tries to make you think that you are the only person who makes mistakes or is unsure of their next step or couldn’t possibly question someone in a superior position because they know more, surely! This little voice could not be more wrong and people need to stop letting it hold them back.
Imposter syndrome, or a fear of making a mistake, will lead a person to silence themselves. This is the worst thing you can do as the only way to progress in life is through clear communication. If you are unsure of your goals then all you need to do is communicate this to your mentor and they will be able to help you figure them out, or at least they can help you with the next step on the road to figuring it out.
Mentee’s need to be upfront and honest about their concerns and mistakes because the only way we learn is by making mistakes. This being said, if you make the same mistake consistently then clearly you are not learning from it. Some people rush into things and try to cut corners and skip steps, just looking for their next pay rise without having a firm base to build off of and this will ultimately be their downfall.
Mentors want you to come and talk openly with them, even provide push-back if you believe they are wrong; either you have a valid point or the mentor can explain their thought process in a clearer way to get everyone on the same page. No one wants to be surrounded by ‘yes-men’, while mentors have more experience we never stop learning and growing as individuals.
It may seem obvious but it needs to be said; it is imperative that you find the right mentor or mentors for you! Figure out what it is you want from a career and seek out those who have achieved it. Alternatively you can reflect internally, figure out what you might be lacking and surround yourself with people you need to be close to in order to develop those skills.
Being in close communication with lots of people will automatically open up avenues and opportunities in a way that just hard-work could not provide on its own. Take advantage of this by building your own network of friends and mentors that can each provide you with different chances and experiences. While this is helpful, in this world there is an element of luck to these things. As the old saying goes, ‘luck takes a lot of effort and hard work’, meaning the more effort you put in the more ‘lucky’ opportunities will be opened up to you. You can get a ‘lucky break’ but you need to be prepared to do the work to make the most of it, this is the only way you will be successful. Surrounding yourself with the right people won’t only open these opportunities up to you, but will help you make the most of these opportunities while supporting you if you struggle.
Even just 20 years ago it was much more difficult to meet people who had achieved what you wanted to achieve because they were working in closed circles with very little external communication. People saw one another as competitors who would steal and profit off of their hard work. Today in the age of free information and open communication predominantly provided by the internet, people have changed from viewing one another as competitors to seeing them as collaborators. Especially in the Tech Industry, we all have the same goal to provide high quality products and services and working together will help everyone to achieve this. You can not only share knowledge, but connections and people who you have found to be a great help. LinkedIn even has a whole built-in mentoring system designed to put people in contact with those who can best help them achieve their goals. The opportunities are out there, don’t be too afraid to look for them.
It can be considered common decency but it is important that the mentee shows their gratitude to the mentor. I am not saying you have to go out and buy them a big bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates, you can if you want to, but it can be much simpler than that. Gratitude can be shown by fulfilling the points mentioned above. By engaging with your mentor; showing that you are self-driven by listening and acting on the information the mentor has provided you. Seeking out their help while respecting their time: recognising that their time is precious and making the most of the time they have given you because they have considered you a worthwhile time investment. Show them that they are correct to think this when their time could easily be spent elsewhere. And saying thank you, while obvious, is too frequently forgotten about.
The world of work can be very intimidating and making sure you are surrounded by the right people can give you the confidence you need to excel. Make sure you have the kind of people who you consider friends, who you respect and appreciate because they show you the support you need. If you are unhappy, say it. If you are confused, speak up. If you think something is wrong, push back. Nothing will change if you remain silent, you cannot progress if you are rooted in one spot.