A Complete Guide to Using a Coach or Mentor Effectively
Everything you should need to know before pursuing a coach or mentor relationship.
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?"
How to create a mentorship relationship.
For unpaid connections, there are a couple short things you should do:
Ask kindly and clearly for a mentorship relationship. Don't leave things ambiguous, such as “Do you think you could help me occasionally?” Make your ask specific and direct.
Explain that you'll make it easy for them. They simply need to attend to participate.
How to properly run your sessions.
Regardless of them being paid coaching or free mentorship sessions, the expectation is that you run your own sessions. It needs to be your agenda, efficient use of time, and clear what you're looking for.
Have an agenda ready - Always have a list of exactly what you want to talk about and accomplish.
Idea A - looking for feedback
I usually suggest having more content than you could reasonably cover, and order your topics based on their priority to you.
Manage your time - Know when to move on to the next topic. The most efficient and dynamic sessions feel like my mentee/client are taking advantage of every second together.
Ask specific questions with clear context - Know what you're looking for, and give the context necessary for your mentor or coach to be able to give their thoughts.
Some examples below:
"How can I grow my career?" - Poor question due to vagueness. I have an infinite number of things I could say here. I can lecture randomly, but this doesn't feel like a good use of your time.
"What should I do about a challenging co-worker?" - Poor question due to lack of context. What is challenging? What's their position? What's yours? What are their goals? What are yours?
"My manager said they might promote me in 12 months to senior engineer, but I'd like it to be in 6 months. What could I say to my manager to politely contest their assumptions without offending them?" - Good specific question with some valuable context. I feel like this is a good starting point for a discussion. I know a timeline. I know you're an engineer. I know the person involved (your manager), and the conflict (expectation mismatch).
"I've been offered an open management position, but I've never managed before. What are the things about management I might not like?" - Good specific question with the necessary context. I know you've never managed. I know you're being offered a management position, which suggests some things about your performance. While I certainly need to ask many questions, I feel like this is a good starting point.
How to get maximum value out of your sessions.
You are paying for mentorship sessions with political capital, and your coaching sessions with actual capital. You should get the maximum value out of this use of time and energy.
Take notes - Any mentor or coach will appreciate the act of taking notes. They recognize taking notes means that you value their advice, and they won't mind the delay. You might be concentrating on absorbing what they're saying, but will you remember in a few weeks?
Re-write your notes immediately following – You can jot down notes at the moment, but your shorthand is unlikely to capture the full value of what you learned. I always suggest going through your notes in any activity and re-write them while things are fresh in your mind. As a side note, this is exactly what I do while interviewing. I take disorganized notes and re-write those notes later to make more sense.
Take their advice - This one sounds obvious. But I'm no longer surprised when I give someone concrete and clear advice on an action to take, and they don't take it.
An often repeated suggestion for mentees is, “Don't feel like you need to do everything they propose. Just listen and see what you can learn.” This advice is often give to people who are hesitant to take up a mentorship relationship.
I disagree with the spirit of that advice though.
You are meeting with someone to get advice for a reason. Often it's because their experience differs from yours. You may not find their advice natural for you, but that's exactly why you're meeting. When someone gives you advice from their experience, the most valuable advice will be the advice which feels the least like you.
Manager - "Oh, but I could never give feedback that harsh."
Which is probably core to why you're having an employee issue. Because your feedback is not strong and clear enough.
Product manager - "I don't think it's a good idea to pivot the whole project right now."
I agreed with your leadership that your current goals don't make sense. Your lack of flexibility is exactly what is driving you to have issues.
I'm not saying that you need to take all advice literally and implement every piece of advice. I just suggest that picking and choosing a few things to implement is a waste of both of your times. I suggest that being uncomfortable with a suggestion might be a clue that it's the most valuable suggestion.
Being open to growth.
Taking this full circle, getting a mentor or coach is about being open to growth. Pretending that you're an expert and don't need advice is equivalent to saying, "I don't need to grow." Asking for advice and being afraid to take it is equivalent to saying, "I'm afraid to grow."
What does a person who is open to growth look like? They're asking for advice. They're curious about how others have solved similar problems. They're hunting for those who have unique experiences and have overcome interesting challenges. When they hear advice, they listen with rapt attention, taking careful notes. Finally, they excitedly come back to their next sessions with feedback on how well the advice worked, and what they think they'll do next.
I wish you all good luck in your growth journey!