Restructuring My Role as a Mentor – A Reflection on LeadDev Together

This past year, I transitioned from being a student mentee to a mentor. Both sides of the coin were challenging in their own ways, and this year certainly gave me a new empathy for my former mentors.

Over the past few months, I have been attending the LeadDev Together conference, which focuses on leadership roles in the software development community. Here are some strategies I’m taking with me in my future as both mentee and mentor.

Plan for GROWth.

I am guilty of having a fantastical view of mentorship. I want both needs and solutions to spontaneously reveal themselves.

In reality, growth requires planning. In Nik Knight’s talk on The Leader as Coach, she shared the GROW model of coaching, an outline for defining the purpose and implementation of your time together. 

  • G – Goal. A definition of done is what gives this partnership direction. Decide on a broad goal initially and iterate down to more constrained and specific goals.
  • R – Reality. In the mentee position, it was difficult for me to identify what was viable or even an option for exploration. Be generous with your industry knowledge, and help your mentee figure out what ideas are realistic and beneficial.
  • O – Options. While guiding your mentee to a realistic path, you want to avoid steamrolling them. As a junior developer at Atomic Object, when I’m presented with a problem, I find it more beneficial for my pair to ask me to suggest a solution rather than for them to immediately dig a fire line across the path of my problem-solving.
  • W – Will. What will your mentee commit to actually working on? What will you commit to for support? This is where you can turn the goals you defined into schedules and action items.

Balance your feedback.

One of the hardest adjustments of beginning my career was learning to receive, and even ask for, critical feedback. Giving it is just as frightening.

Here’s the good news – if you have to have unfavorable conversations, it is beneficial to have a lot of the favorable ones too! You don’t have to jam-pack your mentorship hour with purely productive conversations, and you probably shouldn’t. Those casual in-between chats build trust and might even reveal some concerns that your mentee has not brought up yet.

David Yee spoke on building healthy feedback environments. He pointed out that unfavorable feedback is a key component of such an environment. However, our negativity bias can make us forget the importance of deliberately identifying where a mentee is succeeding. David also emphasized that repeatedly providing feedback only in negative scenarios can induce learned helplessness. That same negativity bias reverberates on the mentee side, convincing them that the only effort they’ve made worth mentioning is in error.

Acknowledge the smooth sailing, build trust, and foster a healthy relationship that gives space to encourage mentees through unfavorable feedback.

Recognize the difference between mentorship and sponsorship.

The most profound lesson I took from the LeadDev Together conference was Catt Small’s distinction between mentorship and sponsorship.

Sponsorship is active.

  • Passive mentorship might look like suggesting a tutorial that would be helpful for a mentee to work through.
  • Sponsorship can look like signing your mentee up to present their work at a conference, advocating for them to be considered for a leadership role, or publicly recognizing an accomplishment of theirs.
  • My coworkers at Atomic have demonstrated sponsorship through actions as simple as having me lead sprint demos early in my career.

Sponsorship requires risk.

  • As mentors, we have a higher position of privilege and padding for mistakes than mentees.
  • Those early in their careers carry significant risk of screwing up and have far less room for error.
  • Mistakes come before learning, and if we want to encourage growth in mentees, we must take on the burden of those mistakes.

I have made the mistake of taking a passive and risk-averse approach to mentorship. I’ve also felt the pains of that approach on the mentee side. Mentorship, in order to be fully impactful, must demonstrate sponsorship.

I’m restructuring my role as a mentor.

Although much of the LeadDev Together series was targeted toward those in more managerial positions, I found several discussions to be helpful for understanding my new responsibilities as a mentor. I plan to take several strategies I learned with me into the future whether I’m the mentor or the mentee.