Many people feel really uncomfortable thinking about themselves as mentors.
Perhaps they think it flies in the face of being humble. And it certainly clashes with the imposter syndrome a lot of us feel. It’s hard to feel like you’re good enough to help others when you don’t feel like you’re good enough yourself, but the irony is that helping others can help put that imposter syndrome at bay!
Is it ever too early to become a mentor?
The most important message I want to share is that everyone should be mentoring. Yes, everyone! Junior and mid-level engineers and managers often think they lack the experience but it’s never too early to start to learn how to give back as a mentor. Most companies participate in internship or co-op programs and I’ve always believed that having our newer engineers lead the interns is a win-win situation. Junior engineers have more recent relevant experience of being new to a company, new to a technology, or new to a library of code.
If hosting an intern through your corporation isn’t an option, there are endless volunteering opportunities to enrich the life of a high school or university-aged student. They’d learn a lot from speaking with someone who recently went through the same transition. Because that’s what being a mentor is truly about: sharing your experiences, what worked well for you, and what would you have done differently.
What does mentoring look like?
Many of us have been mentors without even realizing it. If you ever tutored someone in high school or college, gave someone tips on how to play an instrument, play a sport, or even play a video game, guess what? You were mentoring!
Sometimes you’re mentoring at work without realizing it too. Just last week I ran into a co-worker I first met when she joined Comcast three years ago. Her manager had suggested she meet with me and a few others in order to grow her network and learn about Comcast as she onboarded. I have a vague recollection of this one-hour meeting; we mostly just talked about life at Comcast, my thoughts on the projects we were working on at the time, and my suggestions on how to best work with the team.
When I saw her last week she paid me the most amazing compliment: she said that the one hour that I spent with her three years ago had a huge impact on her success over the following years. She even said she wouldn’t be where she is today if I hadn’t spent that time with her and been so open in the answers to her questions.
Mentoring can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a single meeting like the one I just mentioned. Sometimes it’s more aligned with a specific milestone such as getting a promotion or finishing a project. And sometimes it takes a lifetime. The form mentoring takes can be discussed in the initial meetings, but as with all things in life, plans can change, and that’s okay.
What makes a great mentor?
Being a mentor doesn’t mean you’re an expert at all things all the time, nor does it mean you have all the answers. But if you can listen with empathy, speak with honesty, and create a safe space where anything that’s shared is done so in confidence, you can be a great mentor.
That’s really all there is to it! Often, the most important thing you can do is listen to someone and tell them they’re not alone. Many of my mentees struggle with imposter syndrome, and as someone who also has bouts of imposter syndrome, I don’t have a solution for them. But I can tell them that they’re not alone or broken for feeling that way. I can remind them that they are awesome.
I also encourage them to keep a folder full of kudos to look through when they’re feeling like they’re not good enough. I really encourage you to do the same; every time you think you’re not experienced or knowledgable enough to be a mentor, take a look at all the times people have told you you’re amazing!
Being a mentor is very fulfilling and enriching. It helps me organize and articulate a lot of ideas I'd never have had otherwise. We learn as much from our mentees as they do from us. So, what are you waiting for?