The how & why of being a mentor

As part of building Merit, a platform for useful tech career advice and mentorship, we’ve facilitated thousands of hours of mentorship. We…

As part of building Merit, a platform for useful tech career advice and mentorship, we’ve facilitated thousands of hours of mentorship. We have hundreds of mentors who have opened up their calendars and time to mentor others. Here is what we’ve learned about why people mentor and the best practices to approaching mentorship.

This post will be useful to you if you are thinking of being a mentor and want to know how to be successful in it!

Why do people mentor?

We’ve found that people naturally want to mentor but don’t necessarily understand why. For some it’s purely an enjoyable act; for others, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. If you’re someone considering mentoring, these are the most common reasons why folks mentor in the tech industry:

  1. Give back: The main reason folks offer their time is to give back. Oftentimes mentors want to share the help they received so they can give back to their community and the industry at large.
  2. Learn from others: Through mentoring, you both clarify your thoughts and also learn from the next generation. In tech, methods and technologies move fast.
  3. Meet new people: In a new, remote-first world, mentorship is a way to meet people and network outside of your own communities and events.
  4. Practice mentorship: If you want to become a better manager or a stronger mentor, the best way to improve is through practice. The more you mentor, the more you’ll learn the best ways to ask questions, give advice, and build relationships.

The best mentors we’ve found rarely think of themselves as mentors. They often think they aren’t experienced enough or have a senior enough title. What we’ve found is that yes, there are requirements to being a mentor, but it’s not as rigid as you think.

What are the requirements for being a mentor?

  • Minimal viable experience: This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Having a few (3+) years’ worths of experience is enough. The measure is if you feel you know enough about a role or industry to give thoughtful feedback. Although having a few years in tech is helpful, don’t focus too much on specific titles or length of experience.
  • Ability to listen and share: Listening closely to others and their problems is key to being a good mentor. Conversely, being able to share what you’ve tried in the past and what did/didn’t work is a core component of providing mentorship and advice. You don’t have to have all the answers, but rather you should create a space where folks can create their own solutions.
  • Time available: Mentorship, no matter how you structure it, will take some time — the time involved could range from a few hours a month to a few hours a week. The commitment is up to you, but it is a commitment.

Should I try to mentor folks one-off or try to structure our relationships?

When first meeting a new mentee, try to focus on having a few impactful sessions before deciding whether to have a long-term mentoring relationship. If there is a mutual need/want for developing a mentorship relationship, you can schedule a recurring loop.

You should default to one-off sessions but allow for follow-ups. It’s up to you to decide if you want to continue a conversation. You can always suggest they update you before they book more time with you.

How to find mentees? How to get started? How to meet with mentees?

There are many places to find mentees. You can offer your time within the existing communities of which you are a part: companies, alumni groups, community groups, etc. The pro is that you can help the people you already know or work with.

You can also use mentorship platforms like Merit: You can put in your preferences (calendar, discussion topics, and preferences), and Merit will create a shareable profile and handle the rest: finding mentees, scheduling, and collecting feedback. We created the platform to handle these logistics.

Now that you understand the motivations, qualifications, and general structure of mentorship. The question is: how do I be a good mentor?

What is a good format for a mentorship session?

A good default: is 45 minutes over video. We find that not all sessions need all the time, and how long they take depends mostly on the topic. More specific sessions may take only 20 minutes, while more open-ended questions will typically take the full time. We like to joke that if someone’s asking how to do a job search, that may only take 20 minutes. But if they’re asking what to do with their life, that may take a bit longer.

What do good mentorship sessions look like?

People are coming to you for mentorship because they aren’t able to ask for advice at work or they haven’t found anyone else in their network to talk to. You can think of each mentorship session as a hierarchy of needs:

  1. Feeling comfortable: First, establish a safe space where people feel like they can ask questions. Opening up about your work or career problems is an inherently scary thing.
  2. Feeling heard: Often folks don’t have anyone they can talk to about these problems, so getting to the point where they can talk about their problems and know the message is received is a key step.
  3. Feeling motivated: Once you understand the problem, their ability to make progress might be a question of motivation or empowerment. Helping folks feel optimistic or empowered is a prerequisite to arriving at a solution.
  4. Having options: This is the brainstorming, ideation, and collaboration phase so that the mentee can leave with some actionable ideas or next steps. You yourself don’t have to come up with these yourself.

Now that you have a good sense of the good mentorship sessions, here is how to approach before the session, during, and after.

What to do before a session?

If you’re doing a mentorship session over a video call, we’ve found the following to be helpful:

  • Review the description and write out any relevant stories or lessons.
  • Review their LinkedIn to get a sense of their background.
  • Make sure you are in a sound-proof room, can talk freely, and have good light.
  • Turn your video on and make sure your mic works.
  • Close any distracting apps to avoid multi-tasking — it could look like you’re not paying attention.

What should I do during a session?

  1. Ask questions: Ask questions to clarify or understand, especially if you are meeting the person for the first time. Asking questions is always a way to build trust and comfort. It’s about validating your assumptions and giving the other person space to share context.
  2. Share stories: The beauty of a mentorship conversation is that you can talk to someone in a related role without the potential conflicts that could come with working directly with the person. That means that sharing stories is integral for these conversations. The stories of your career successes and failures paint an easy-to-digest lesson for the other person to take home. Merit has found that many of the biggest lessons shared during a conversation come from sharing the story of your prior experiences.
  3. End with an actionable item: Try to end the call with an action item to do next. This ensures the person leaves with more options than they started with. It also makes it easy for them to follow up with how things went.

After the session

  • Reflect on what you thought was helpful.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Share any resources or links that you mentioned.

If being a mentor sounds interesting to you, we strongly encourage you to check out mentorship platforms for tech workers, such as Merit.

Only takes a few minutes and handle all the annoying parts of mentorship (feedback, scheduling, and follow-ups) and enjoy the fun part (helping and meeting people). Apply here.

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