Mentoring is a learning opportunity — for you

After nearly 30 years of professional life, the thought of returning — if only symbolically — to academia by co-mentoring Masters students on their Capstone projects seemed daunting, overwhelming, frightening, but also a little exciting.

As a Studio Manager with a product team at IBM it is my daily task to lead, mentor, train, support, moderate, facilitate, negotiate with, manage, advocate for, review and sometimes feed a large group of talented and — mostly — early career professionals. No two days have ever been the same and quite honestly I am never fully prepared for the kinds of questions I am asked or the problems I am tasked with solving. They’re a fantastic team to work with, but they still leave messes in their meeting rooms and dirty dishes in the sink, so there’s work to be done yet.

Leading, mentoring and coaching sound similar but they are not. Being a Studio Manager does not prepare me for my work as a Volunteer Scouter with Scouts Canada. The experience of working with 5 to 7 year olds could be best described in two words: Herding Cats. But it is so much more than that. Sure, I have had my arm licked and sneezed on, I’ve been ignored, and had to pull kids (repeatedly) down off objects they should not have been climbing. I have also tried to run a craft session while the kids entertained themselves with a musical fart symphony — with my own son leading the way.

But it’s also been incredibly rewarding. I’ve run activities and games that really engaged the kids and made unexpected connections. It’s sharing with them what I know — when they are paying attention — that I find the most rewarding.

What it all means

Volunteering within your local community or your professional community both provide many opportunities for giving back, personal growth and eminence. When some have asked me about volunteering their time to others professionally as a mentor or a coach, internally or externally, they often ask me about the differences in both scope and commitment.

At IBM we encourage Mentoring and Coaching and provide various online tools to help search our extensive employee database for suitable matches. Managers often double as mentors for their teams or make connections for their reports to help them along their career path. As for commitment, in a professional sense mentoring and coaching often draw upon similar skill sets with coaching being a short-term task or skill specific undertaking and mentoring being a longer-term relationship that touches on multiple aspects of career development.

Stay open to possibilities

When I was approached by a colleague to join an IBM team to pitch project ideas to the University of Waterloo’s Master of Digital Experience Innovation (MDEI) program I was intrigued but initially unsure about what I could contribute. This was a whole new level of mentoring, beyond kids, beyond managing direct reports and assisting peers at work. This was also a level of education I had never reached and, despite my nearly 30 years as a working professional, I was a little intimidated. We were integrated with 2 project teams as industry partners after proposing topics based on the areas of Cognitive Marketing and Cognitive Health.

The next 12 weeks were an intense and rewarding experience for all involved, but if I had listened to my doubts, it would not have happened.

The IBM Mentors and the MDEI students after their final project presentations to faculty. That’s me, second from left.

What is keeping you from Mentoring or Coaching?

When I speak to others about mentoring or coaching, one common theme of resistance is that “I’m not an expert”. I remind them that some of the people who seek Mentors or Coaches are not experts themselves but are in need of the wisdom belonging to someone who has made these practices and skills part of their daily routine. You have more to give than you think.

What is blocking you? Start by examining your own personal biases for insight.

1: I don’t know the domain well enough

What you know and what you are good at become part of who you are, so much so that we often forget that others do not share this information or point of view, or have not benefited from our experiences. Once you start mentoring or coaching you come to appreciate what a depth of domain or skills knowledge you have to share and that, surprise, there are some people who are very smart, educated and intelligent in their own rights, but simply lack the specific knowledge you have. So Mentoring or Coaching is not always about being above someone, it can be about 2 peers who can (often) share with each other to mutual benefit.

2: I need to focus on my own growth

The challenges and insights you gain from mentoring will be different from your own and will help you grow your own confidence and leadership skills. Throughout the mentoring process with our MDEI students, we were able to see how the processes and tools we use daily are seen through the eyes of someone relatively new to them and it was a pleasure to see them embrace storytelling, personas, and hills into their process. We also learned from their questions or from helping them through their blockers.

And when topics strayed to areas or canvasses I was less familiar with, I had support.

3: I am interested but I can’t do this on my own. I am only confident in a few areas.

When we committed to mentoring a team of students we instinctively knew we had to form our own teams. The structure was this: 2 teams of 4 students working on 2 separate cognitive projects, Health and Marketing. The teams of students had at least 2 IBM mentors each. The mentors often called in Subject Matter Experts to handle specific questions. We met all together every 2 weeks for playbacks and group critiques. The combined strengths of these mentors meant that no one was left on their own, and the students benefited from multiple perspectives. So, the students had access to 4 career professionals, and the mentors benefited from the insights and expertise of each other. When one of us needed help with a question, we’d turn to the others. The student never lacked direction, feedback or encouragement.

It was a learning experience for me as well. Discussions were lively and I often learned as much as I offered. This helped build my confidence when I found myself on my own with the students one afternoon during a work session they had arranged at our site and, of course, I was peppered with questions or requests for critique. I felt at the time more like a student being tested, but once we started talking, and I started simply challenging their assumptions, things fell into place and these 4 brilliant minds kicked into high gear and iterated to the next level. I was there only to nudge and steer, but it still felt great and was easier than I feared.

It was rewarding to guide them in the exploration of their problem space and it was clear the students were gaining valuable insights during the process.

4: What impact can I possibly have?

Plenty. Don’t assume others do things as instinctively as you do. For example, storytelling.

One of the students, Jennie Heo, wrote 2 blogs based on her experience working with IBM on her Capstone project. These thoughts illustrate the impact of the time we spent with them:

Throughout our playback sessions, I was particularly intrigued by our IBM advisors’ emphasis on integrating storytelling into our deliverables. In fact, stories were constantly used to build our experience maps based on in-depth user testings, interviews, and observations.
… As someone who is passionate about understanding human behaviours and emotions, I realized that personas can be used as an integral part of humanizing experiences for products and services. While working with the IBM Cognitive Marketing team… and executing the Design Thinking Process, I learned what it means to create human-centric products. In the future, I am excited to tackle challenges and create experiences that inspire human empathy by weaving stories, experiences, and products together.

Yeah, so we had a hand in fostering that enthusiasm. It feels good.

Do a Retrospective

In the end, when it was all complete — we made a mistake and missed an opportunity to do a retrospective. We dove right back into our work and moved on. Although I would be open to repeating the experience with another student group, it would have been ideal to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what we could have done do to improve the process.

However, an after-the-fact retrospective —full disclosure: initiated while I was writing this — still yielded some interesting insights. We had done some things right, we had occasionally stumbled, but we all learned, and by examining the output of this retrospective we can be better prepared to take on something like this again in the future.

What worked well for us

  • We divided the work into sprints and provided some initial research materials into the cognitive space.
  • We set out expectations from the outset establishing timing, assigned tasks and expectations for each sprint.
  • We introduced the students to IBM Design Thinking with a mini workshop at the kickoff meeting.
  • We divided into teams of mentors for each student group and occasionally gathered both groups together for regular playbacks to gain shared insights.
  • We took a hands-off approach. We answered questions, we critiqued and provided feedback. We don’t do the work.
  • We gave the students a space in our office weekly and access to us if they had questions.
  • We brought in Subject Matter Experts to answer the students’ questions.
  • We gladly attended their final Capstone presentations and sat in on the presentations of other student teams. Not only did this give us insight into how others approached their projects, it was a great chance to scope out even more potential talent.

What didn’t work so well

  • We should have established a code of conduct at the outset instead of just project expectations.
  • Be mindful of distance: The students opted to visit us weekly but the long travel time was hard on them. We had to maximize our time when they were with us to make the journey fruitful.
  • Sometimes gathering multiple teams together for playbacks made the meetings over long and took away some of our one-on-one times with the students.
  • We should have assessed the combined skills of the group and established a plan for any gaps. In our case it was in Visual Design.

Things we’ll try next time

  • We should have immediately done a retrospective as a group as our last deliverable.
  • Their projects were centered in a space we had suggested and mentored them in exploring, but were hypothetical. We were unable, for a variety of reasons, to sponsor them in working on any IBM related projects. Plan ahead and see what support your organization can offer to the students to provide real world context.
  • Introduce the students to the operating model of how Designers, Researchers and Developers work together to give students an idea of how they can better collaborate and work together as a team.
  • Try to schedule time for workshops during the process to facilitate the student’s solving their own problems in a supportive environment.

Foster connections

Make connections with your local Universities or Colleges — both for creating a potential stream of co-op or intern candidates, and also for mentoring opportunities. Not only will you be giving back, having a small hand in the development of the next generation of professionals in your area, and so potentially creating a pipeline to new hires the likes of which you don’t get through traditional channels. Even if there is no immediate benefit to your business, or yourself, giving back is the reward and unexpected dividends may take a while to show up, but are probably going to be worth the wait.

David Williams is a Studio Manager at IBM based in Toronto. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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