Being a Good Mentor with your Team
Anyone can be a mentor to someone else, irrelevant of a formal structure. We all can help in areas another needs it. This goes beyond your work team, too. You may be a mentor to someone you know online, met at a convention or meetup, or through a formal program.
Knowing you have the experience or skills to help and wanting to help them is only the beginning. Knowing how to help them is what will set you apart as a good mentor.
First: What kind of mentor are you?
There are different kinds of mentor/mentee relationships. You may be in a more experienced role helping a junior with their career, or perhaps it's a peer where you help each other improve at different skills. Sometimes you may not have a formal mentor/mentee, and you don't always need to — you can still use these tips to help others on your team become their best selves.
Meet your mentee where they are.
Each mentee is starting from their own unique experience. They won't all know the same things or have the same strengths and weaknesses. This means you have to be flexible as well: you can't treat each mentee the same.
People have different learning styles, and their experience level will also impact the way they learn best. Some will be able to learn independently from a quick instruction, but others may need to be walked through the process. Some may remember from a single visual demonstration, but others will do better with written steps they can reference while they need them. (Your team does have good docs, don't they?)
Never blame the mentee if they're struggling. Instead, adjust your approach. If you're having trouble telling what approach may suit them best, ask your mentee what method makes them feel most comfortable. It may be obvious what's not working, but the other person is often better at articulating why. That insight can also be valuable for improving as a mentor with others as well!
Don't assume anything.
You should know what your mentee wants out of the relationship, and they should know what you expect as well. If they want to get good at one thing, but you're expecting to help them to improve at something else — that's a problem! While they'll probably want to know if they seem to be struggling, they might not necessarily appreciate you jumping in with advice.
In other words, don't assume what your mentee wants to get better at or what their goals are. Even if they are in the same role as you, they may not want to move in the same direction as you. That said, a junior mentee may not know what direction they want to go in yet, and that's okay! You shouldn't dictate the path for them, though. Instead, ask questions that help them discover what they want for themselves.
You're not always the best person to help.
Knowing your weaknesses is another valuable skill as a mentor. If you know someone else on the team is the best person to help them with a problem, connect them. Just because they asked you doesn't mean you have to be their mentor. Connecting with another person who'd be a more beneficial mentor for them is another way you can help. Be part of the initial discussion if the mentee hasn't interacted with them before.
You may not like mentoring, don't have time, or don't feel you can help with confidence in the area they need help — those are all valid reasons to direct them to someone else. It's okay to say "no". Likewise, it's okay if you can't help right now. Giving a quick tip at the moment they need it is good, but there's nothing wrong with telling your mentee, "This is a challenging problem to explain. Do you mind waiting an hour or two so I can give you my full attention?"
Share your mistakes.
For a younger or less experienced mentor, knowing you have made similar mistakes or been in the same situation is instrumental. They can trust that you when you're giving advice, it's something that's been "tested". More importantly, it lets them know it's okay to make mistakes or struggle. It's common for newer and younger team members to worry if they're "doing okay", and realizing they've made a mistake can amplify that anxiety. Letting them know you've done the same — or worse — can alleviate some of their fears.
You don't want anyone to "hide" their mistakes or feel shame about them. Mistakes from anyone at any level are valuable learning opportunities and should be talked about!
Offer guidance more often than they ask.
In a relationship where the mentor is much younger and/or inexperienced, they will often be hesitant to ask for help. They may worry about coming across as incompetent. If you suspect they need help, you can offer guidance without forcing them to "out" themselves as struggling. You can do this by sharing additional tips, articles, or other information they may find helpful. However, you want them to be honest with you — so encourage them to be comfortable asking for help at any time. Setting times to pair on a task in advance is great for that. It sets an expectation that you are fine taking time to help them and that it's OK if they can't figure it out on their own.
Know when and how to help.
As the more experienced one, often you'll notice where they need help before they do. However, it's not always a good idea to say something right away. Letting them learn to identify when they need help or to seek advice is also a valuable skill! Checking in periodically on parts of a task enables you to gauge where they're at and provides an opportunity for them to ask for help on their own. Be specific in your questions. For example, "Were you able to connect to the API?" may lead to them admitting, "No, actually I need some help." Follow up with different ways you can help! For example:
"Do you want me to pair with you?"
i.e. "Let's walk through this together."
"Are you getting an error message?"
i.e. "I'll help you troubleshoot this step."
"What have you tried?"
i.e. "I want to know your process."
"Do you feel you're close?"
i.e. "Do you want more time to figure it out on your own?"
Give them guidance that's long-term.
There is rarely a single way to help someone with a problem. Giving them the answer immediately is easy — but that's not always the method that would be most helpful to them long-term.
If your mentee is a junior developer who is struggling to debug issues, you can also help them by teaching them how to debug the issue themselves. With your experience, the bug is probably immediately obvious to you. But for a moment, pretend it isn't, and walk them step-by-step through how you would find the bug. What questions would you ask? What would you check? You can direct them to ask these questions and checks one at a time.
You may also encourage your mentee to keep a journal to track things they've learning or questions they have. Having regular meetings or retrospectives with them, especially in the beginning, are a great opportunity for them to review what they've learned and ask for further guidance.
It can seem tedious at first, but being patient is a valuable quality as a good mentor. It may be time-consuming and inconvenient for you, but for your mentee, it is crucial knowledge for growing their abilities. They'll begin to ask themselves similar questions and, with practice, need to ask for help less often.
Do your best and be honest.
All of these tips come down to communicating well and honestly. If you're open with your mentee about their progress and how you can help, both of you will benefit much more from the relationship. Some mentees may have things to teach you too, so be open to their opinions regardless of their where they're starting from.
Keeping these tips in mind will help you get off to a good start, but there's a lot more to learn about being a mentor! The most important things to remember are you're working to make a positive impact and help someone on a personal level. Whether your mentee is a peer or an intern, always seek to do what's in their best interest. Being a mentor isn't about you: it's about helping someone else.
But don't forget to have some fun, too!