Mentorship: advocating for a better relationship

How a company full of great advocates creates an ever better people culture

Written by Mike Arauz, Partner at Undercurrent

Think for moment about the times in your life when you experienced the most prolific and fast-paced growth. Those periods when your talent, your potential, and your goals suddenly leaped beyond what you had previously thought possible. Chances are, all of these experiences have something in common: there was someone standing at your side who guided and pushed you along the way. As a child, you might have experienced this in school (if you’re lucky), in sports, in the arts, or any number of other experiences where you found a match between something you could get better at and something that you wanted to get better at.

As we graduate into the professional world this kind of support is hard to come by. In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have a few people who have played this role for me. And now that I start finding myself more often on the mentor end of the mentor <-> mentee spectrum (due, I am confident, to my relative age and tenure where I work; certainly not to my relative wisdom), I’ve begun to think harder about what makes a good mentor? How can I be a better one? And what should mentees look for or expect from a mentor?

Based on my experience at Undercurrent over the past 7 years and all the previous experiences that led me here, this is where I’ve ended up.

First off, one of the things I love most about Undercurrent is that we aspire to be a place where the people who work here can grow more and faster in their careers while they’re here than they can anywhere else. And certainly many of the people who have excelled here have lived up to that aspiration. As one of the most tenured employees, I’ve had the unique honor of watching many incredible people level up their careers while part of our team. It’s really a gift to work side by side with people like that.

One of the things we’ve done to try and ensure that we maintain that aspect of our culture is to create an official mentorship program:

  1. Each person at Undercurrent has 1 person who is officially designated as that person’s ‘Advocate’.
  2. As of ~1 year ago, we changed the name of the role from ‘mentors’ to ‘advocates’. This was an explicit acknowledgement of what we found to be the true mission and value of someone within your company who plays this role for a colleague.
  3. The Advocate role’s stated purpose is: “advocating for a fellow member’s career growth at Undercurrent”.
  4. Here’s how advocates are selected: Every year, during January’s Undercurrent University week, members are asked to select their Advocate (who will attend their reviews and advise them regularly) for the following year. Advocates may set their own limit on total members advised. Preference in mentor selections will be offered in order of tenure. Mid-year additions to the team will be assigned an Advocate by the people who oversee the Advocacy Program for the remainder of that year.
  5. A person who fills the Advocate role is accountable for:
Meeting w/ their person on agreed intervals to help them navigate company culture, process tensions, and identify opportunities for growth
If their person is new to UC, meeting with them no less than once per week during their first trimester
Scheduling and attending reviews, requesting feedback from relevant peers, and delivering this as input for the person who oversees their work to craft a brief review according to the standard set forth by the people who oversee the Advocacy Program
Assessing their person’s role mix on an ongoing basis and making recommendations on bandwidth, fit, and career goals
Alerting the people who oversee the Advocacy Program if the relationship is not working for any reason, including bandwidth

This program is supported and overseen by another role, who is responsible for:

Designing, implementing, and monitoring the advocacy program
Supporting Advocates
Auditing Advocate/team member relations on a regular basis

So, now that you’ve got an advocate, what should you expect?

A good advocate focuses on the things that matter even over the things that might make you feel good.

Fulfillingness even over happiness.

Over the course of a long career, happiness can be a specious outcome. You think you want it, but if that’s all you get, you won’t be satisfied. What you really want is work that gives you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment on a deeper and more profound level.

Engagement even over comfort.

If you’re doing work that you love, and you’re honestly trying to get better at it, it’s going to be hard sometimes. There will be late nights. There will be stressful days. There will be exhaustion. As in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, you want to ride on the edge of your skill set.

Growth even over success.

If you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Success feels good, and it can be a good indicator of our progress. But, we grow the most when we are forced to take risks and try to do something that we might not succeed at.

Once both the advocate and their mentee is agreed on that approach, I’ve found that the strongest advocate relationships embrace these commitments.

Your advocate will believe in you.

Will believe that…

  • You have unique talent. You have the ability to do things others can’t.
  • You’ve got what it takes to have the career you always dreamed of. You have the ability to learn and change in the ways you need to to achieve your career aspirations.
  • You know better than anyone (including your advocate) what’s going to be the right path for you. It’s up to you.

Your advocate will challenge you.

Will ask you to…

  • Expect more of yourself than you think you’re capable of.
  • Stretch yourself. Seek out the things that challenge you, rather than the things you’ve already mastered.
  • Question assumptions you have about what you’re good at and what you’re ready for.
  • Be honest with yourself about when it’s the right time for you to move on from the company (even if it’s painful).

Your advocate will be insightful.

Will be able to…

  • Identify the underlying truths about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Point out the surprising and hidden challenges and opportunities around you.
  • Shed light on the inner workings of the organization you work inside of and the people you work with.
  • Help you envision and describe a future for yourself that you didn’t realize could exist.

Advocate on your behalf.

Push for you to…

  • Get a raise.
  • Get promoted.
  • Get onto important projects (ones that you might not be ready for, yet, and ones that will push you to grow).
  • Get noticed and get external opportunities.

And, lastly, a good advocate knows their limits. A good advocate…

  • Stays humble. They know what they don’t know, and know that there’s stuff that they think they know, that they really don’t know.
  • Wants to help you be your best self, not a reflection of themselves.
  • Makes it about you, and only imposes their own experience when it helps to illuminate your experience.

No doubt, this is a lot to live up to. We haven’t always lived up to this promise at Undercurrent; and I certainly haven’t always lived up to it, as an advocate myself.

But, when it’s done right, it creates an incredibly virtuous cycle for both the organization and the people who inhabit it. It creates a thriving culture of high-performers, who are fulfilled and engaged by their work, and who get better and better at an exponential pace. It’s the secret ingredient that makes great workplaces great.

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