Mentoring viewed as personal growth
May 25, 2020
Andrei Ionescu

That senior that was an inspiration. The “go to” person, that always had the answer. A teacher. A mentor. We all had at some point this person in our career, that we looked up to, that helped us, that made us better in some way. We learn from them, rely on them and maybe one day, become them.

Beyond the Buddy system

In I encountered for the first time the implementation of a buddy system, where a new colleague gets assigned a buddy in the first days or weeks, so they get accommodated easier. The buddy is usually a more experienced person on a similar role, involved in some way in the project the newbie will be assigned to, so they can work closely in the beginning. Then they show them around the company, introduce them to the people they will be working with, tell them about who’s who and what’s what, where to find the best lunch place. In some ways, this buddy is the first friend a new person makes in the company.

Even though some companies implement a mentoring program, the mentor role is often more of an unofficial one. The buddy is in some aspects a mentor to the new colleague. But the full role comes with more responsibilities.

It’s easy to think that the role of the mentor is to help with difficult tasks, but it can be much more. A mentor can provide advice regarding career development, help people know and understand company culture, inspire and motivate. A mentee has the opportunity to grow faster, or set proper goals and own expectations when under the guidance of a senior. On the long run, they gain a lot from this interaction. But what does the mentor gain from this?

Being a mentor

The relationship I described until now is mutually beneficial in many ways. It helps the mentor develop their soft skills and learning how to teach is a great opportunity. One cannot say that they truly know a subject until they’re able to explain it to somebody who is a beginner in the respective matter.

Mentoring someone is a great way to build a relationship. One side of this partnership acquires an admiration for the teacher, the other gets to know their ward, to appreciate their evolution. Sometimes helping a colleague is a good distraction from one’s own problems. At the end of the day, being able to say that “Today I made a difference for my colleagues” is a great satisfaction.

There’s a certain look people have on their faces when they’re stuck on a problem for a while, and they muster the courage to ask for help. Some sort of “deer in the headlights” bewildered expression, with the added worry of the wasted time they already invested in this issue. As a mentor you take your best shot at understanding the problem, coming up with a solution, salvaging whatever possible from the situation. I believe it’s a great benefit and an amazing learning experience when the solution is not “delete everything, let’s start over with my idea instead of yours”, but when you find the solution together, working from the point the junior brought the problem. The scared look gets replaced by a happy, hopeful one, that says that “I didn’t do so bad, next time I’ll do better”, instead of the resentment felt when their idea gets completely rejected.

As I write this, the world is going through a global pandemic and whenever possible people are stuck at home, working remotely. This is an added challenge to the mentoring role. It’s a struggle to keep in constant touch with people that need the most help, video calls don’t always carry the same energy as a face to face meeting, you feel more separated from your colleagues, harder to reach, even if they’re just a VoIP call away. But we all do our best, and being able to continue working almost unaffected is truly a blessing. We really live in the future.

The Enabler

I often asked myself about my own role. Technology evolves really fast, what was new and productive last month is all but abandoned now. Given this, I sometimes felt like a junior when facing new projects, and I know from discussions with colleagues that I’m not the only one. But with experience comes an ability to adapt faster, even if learning new tricks becomes harder with age.

So I started exploring a different approach. I see value in having a person that has a high level understanding of the processes involved and tech used, with the ability of delegating and using the best person available for a given task, and supporting them when they encounter problems.  Part tech leader, part scrum master, part mentor. I call this “The Enabler”.

Asking the right question, charing the proper person, representing the team, in good and bad in front of superior or the client, helping with a debug, fixing a problem, teaching something new to a colleague. The enabler has their role ensuring the tasks go smoothly, the project gets done and the team stays happy.

A “Thank you”

Writing this I remembered the names and faces of the people that helped me along the way, that took their time to teach me something and by doing this made me a better professional. I would like you to think of the people that influenced you. Maybe even drop them a thank you message. And then think if you did the same to others, if you have left your mark on the people around, if at any point somebody thought of you as their mentor. Or if today, right now, you can do something to help a colleague. You will both benefit from this, you will both grow together.

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