I was recently asked a question from an engineer on whether she should find a mentor. It seems like many people have mentors so how does one determine if they need one or not? Or does everyone need one and by not having one, are you missing out on something?
First, let me describe what I mean by the term “mentor”. This would be a person within the same industry (potentially within the same company) that has a lot of valuable experience that you can learn from based on what topics you need to learn more about. Career mentors are people that can teach you more about how to progress your career or what skills you need to develop that may or may not pertain to your current role, but that you will need to progress to new or more challenging roles on your career path. Career mentors are typically managers or more senior people whose careers can be used as an example and as part of the mentoring. Technical mentors can be peers, coworkers, or close team mates that know a specific technology that you need to learn to do your job better. For technical mentors, these people do not need to be managers or even in their jobs very long. They just need to be experts in a technology. Allowing people to be technical mentors is beneficial because it gives them experience in teaching others and forms a great win-win situation. What I've found with any mentoring situation is that there are times when a mentor needs to be a life coach. Work and personal life overlap so much that this should be a topic that any mentor feels comfortable discussing if the person needing mentorship has questions or needs advice in dealing with home life such as kids, schools, houses, hobbies, pets, etc.
Pairing someone up with a mentor can be a matter of trial and error to find someone with specific knowledge about the topics you want to learn more about. So back to the question on if you need a mentor or how you determine if you need one. You shouldn't get a mentor if you don't have a reason for one. If you are struggling to understand the value of a mentor, then potentially this isn't the right time in your career for one. But for many, having a career mentor gives them an edge over others in understanding the workings of their company and the path for their career. Having a mentor will help teach skills in a deliberate way and not in a way where those skills are acquired just when circumstances present themselves that necessitate it.
I don't have an official career mentor and never have had one throughout my career. Recently I asked another woman in my company who is near the VP level if she ever had a mentor, and she too said no. It's not that mentors aren't valuable. Instead, most mentoring that worked for me was very informal. I use my managers a lot as mentors. And my peers and other team members as well. I watch people closely and determine what I like about how they handle situations, what I don't like, and whether I could do things as well as they do. I am very self-analytical and am very aware of the activities around me. If I spent the day heads-down in my office not engaging with others, I probably would opt for a career mentor. But I get regular mentorship by just talking to people and figuring out how I can improve through my daily interactions. A few times, in a crisis, I've called upon previous bosses and ran ideas by them to get advice. That works great for one-off situations but is also difficult to get accurate advice. For mentoring to work, you really need to meet regularly with your mentor. I've experienced situations where someone needs advice about a situation that has been developing over months and months involving people they work with and strong personalities. Without regular mentoring sessions, the mentor doesn't get that perspective (month after month) and that makes giving advice in a one-off mentoring session difficult and not as beneficial for the person seeking the advice.
Here are some things to consider in determining if having a mentor is right for you:
Are you self-analytical? If you analyze yourself naturally and are fair about your assessments, then you probably do well at correcting your shortcomings. If this isn't a skill you have acquired, then a mentor may be helpful to you.
Are you observant? If you observe others and how they are behaving and then reflect that back onto yourself (especially if you are self-analytical), then you can witness new, and potentially better, behaviors in others that you can work to acquire or witness poor behaviors that you can choose to avoid. If you don't observe others naturally or understand what good or not-so-good behaviors are, then a mentor may be helpful to you. You may have an idea of the person you'd like to become and just need a role model to follow. That is also a good time to seek out a mentor.
Do you need validation from others? If you think you are doing well, but your career isn't moving forward or you aren't getting the recognition you'd expect, then a mentor can help you. Getting validation from others that you are either doing the right thing or that you can improve yourself is a strong benefit in helping sculpt your career.
Do you take advice and feedback well or do you like to experience everything on your own? Similarly to the concept of not reinventing the wheel that many of us use in engineering and programming, the same holds true for your career. Why try to move down a career path where every turn is unknown to you when instead someone who went down that path years ago can explain the turns and how to avoid the pitfalls?
You need to understand your commitment when signing up to have a regular career mentor. You should bring your questions or situations which you need advice on into the session. I typically have these sessions once a month and that gives the mentee a month to figure out the topics for the next meeting. During that month, as they do their jobs, they find times when topics surface that would be good discussions with their mentor, and they write them down. Sometimes if there aren't any burning topics to discuss, I talk about what I'm currently doing or issues I've been dealing with and those examples usually start good discussions.
For me, when I have some topics that need discussed, I may raise my questions to my manager or peers, but I also find books on the topic and read about it further. And some books even help me generate ideas on what skills I need to work on for career growth. I love the books where each page or two describes a new rule or thought to follow because I don’t have to dedicate a large block of time to get something from the book. I can learn things in short increments. As I read it, I evaluate if I do that well or not and think about how to do it better. I find ways to satisfy my career growth without specifically having a mentor, but it's a personal choice that each person has to decide for themselves. But after writing this blog, I’m questioning if maybe I should get a mentor. J
If you've read my blog this far, then let me reward you with one further thought. When I received this question about mentoring from an engineer that I work with, I realized that although I have a ton of topics to blog about, there may be other topics out there that people want to hear about. So I'd like to invite you to send me an email with your questions or specific topics around engineering management, leading teams, career growth, etc. I will try to address your questions in future blog topics and will keep your questions anonymous. This helps me to know what topics interest you that I should focus on.