Through this article, I'm going to be discussing the topic of coaches and mentors. This concept is someone who uses their experience to help another person grow and overcome their challenges. When I use the terms, I'm referring to mentors as a non-paid volunteer position, and a coach as a paid position, although they perform the same role.
Many people are reluctant to have a mentor. In the past, I rejected the concept a few times myself. I remember repeatedly offering employees who worked for me that I could find them a mentor within Amazon, and I'd be regularly turned down.
"I think I've got this. I'll let you know if I need help."
I think one problem is that people mistakenly see getting a mentor as admitting that they have a problem. As Seth Godin calls out in an article on the topic, in most fields having a coach is expected for high performers, but many corporate employees oddly shy away from the concept.
In my opinion, the need to have a mentor or coach only increases as you gain experience. As a new college hire, the mistakes you'll make are obvious. It's easy for any co-worker to point out better ways to accomplish your job. The challenges you'll encounter will be straightforward.
As you grow in experience, the mistakes you'll make and the challenges you'll encounter will become more ambiguous and complex. Leaders who are open to growth and development will often find a wealth of learning from working with another experienced leader.
Why you might want a mentor or coach.
It's not necessarily about someone with more experience, or with better skills. It's often because someone has a different toolbox than you have.
I love the concept of a toolbox. When you begin your career, you have a relatively empty toolbox. Conceptually, you have a hammer, and some nails. You treat most problems the same way, because you just haven't done much.
Through the school of hard knocks, and observing others, you slowly put more tools in your toolbox. Over time, you recognize patterns in the challenges and situations you encounter, and you can recognize that a specific tool you have in mind could work for this situation.
"Oh, our on-call is occasionally getting swamped? In the past I've seen a secondary on-call work well."
Then you encounter situations where you don't have another tool available, or the tools you employed aren't working.
"I put a secondary on-call in place, but our operations load keeps growing. Shoot."
What you want is to find someone who has encountered similar challenges, but solved them in different ways.
When I moved from a Technology Director at Amazon to a General Manager, I was taking a large step into product management. I'd done minor product management before, but never on such a large scale.
I asked two product management leaders I respected to mentor me through this personal growth. Not necessarily because they could do my job better, but because their toolbox and experience was different from mine.
Separately, discussing issues out loud often makes the problem and solution more clear. Simply hearing yourself talk with another person can be enlightening.
I've repeatedly had people bring questions to me in coaching, and through their description of the issue, the answer seems pretty clear. Not just to me, but to them. We sometimes need that discussion to bring the right answer to the light.
What types of mentorship or coaching are there?
At a high level, there are a few major topics of mentorship or coaching. Some broad categories include the below.
General career - E.g. How do I get promoted? How do I grow my career? How do I get paid better?
Career change - E.g. I'd like to move from engineering into management. I'd like to consider a complete field change. I'd like to move to a smaller/larger company.
Specific challenges - E.g. I'm building a new mobile application, and I have some specific questions and issues I'm dealing with.
Specific skills - E.g. I'm not great at writing documents, and I need feedback and advice to get better at it.
How to find a mentor or coach.
Since mentorship is an unpaid position, you generally need to find someone you personally know, and who would be willing to spend some of their personal time helping you.
Past managers or co-workers are the most common sources of mentorship. The advantage is that they often have their own experiences with how you work, and can provide more specific feedback regarding issues you've encountered.
You don't want to have a close current co-worker be a mentor, because their point of view would be influenced by their own needs, expectations, and points of view. You want this to be an introspective experience where you are driving your own growth. Not to say that you shouldn't listen to advice from your co-workers. It's just not a classic mentorship relationship.
Since coaching is a paid activity, it comes down to finding someone who has a toolbox different from yours, and perhaps with the specific experience or skills you feel would help you with your challenges.
How frequently should you meet?
This greatly depends on the purpose of your sessions. If you're looking for advice on long term career growth, you might meet quarterly. If your challenge is a specific current project, you may want to meet bi-weekly. I often met with mentees at Amazon every 6-8 weeks, which matches how often my recurring coaching sessions tend to take place.
A few things to think about:
- How regularly do things change? If you took advice on three actions you plan to take, the most valuable session would be after you've observed the results of those actions.
- How often does your coach or mentee make themselves available? A coach may be available if you're willing to pay. A mentor may prefer less frequent meetings.
- For coaching, how many meetings can you afford before it feels too costly?
As a mentee, I always propose my preference, but will take the answer from my mentor or coach. "I was thinking we might meet every 6 weeks for a few months and see how it goes. Or do you prefer something different?"