The Surprising Things We Learnt From Mentoring

What do you imagine when you hear the word mentor? You might picture someone high up in their career, guiding a graduate fresh out of the University oven. Or maybe you think about a master of their craft helping to fine-tune someone’s skills? Either way, mentoring is generally understood to be a two-way relationship.

Well, not quite, just ask the Gousto Product Design team. When launching their first mentoring programme, they realised it was actually a three-way process between the mentee (and Product Designer) Elsa, mentor (and fellow Product Designer) Kelly, and Product Design Manager Teri.

The trio learned about the importance of capturing hopes and fears, being open with feedback and, most vital of all, how supportive Elsa’s cat could be throughout the process.

The different roles and their learnings sliced up in a pretty pie chart 🥧

How the mentoring programme started
As line manager to Elsa and Kelly, Teri spotted an opportunity for everyone to develop.

T: “We regularly talk about our ambitions in 1–2–1s, including areas for growth and how to positively impact others through things we already do well.

“I’d had conversations with Kelly. She loves sharing knowledge, has an impressive understanding of visual design and has managerial ambitions.

“I’d also spoken to Elsa, who saw visual design as an area for growth and wanted to become independent in a customer-facing squad.”

E: “Our design team sets a very high bar and I wanted to maintain that standard. Teri and I spoke about how I could get some extra support and then along came Kelly!”

As a first step, Teri reached out to Kelly and Elsa to understand if a mentoring programme was something they’d be interested in.

T: “I wanted to empower Kelly to be fully autonomous in planning and designing the programme, knowing she can come to me for guidance if needed. We set up a rough outline together before Kelly started planning more thoroughly.”

The rough plan of action 👀

Hopes and fears
Kelly put a hopes and fears exercise together, knowing that an important part of mentoring is building trust.

K: “My main hopes were that Elsa’s confidence sky-rocketed. I wanted her to create work she was proud of, while learning consistently. She wanted a wow moment where someone complimented her on her UI. I was hopeful this would happen, as I knew that would mean a lot to her (spoiler alert, it did 🎉).

“My fears were about workload. I didn’t want mentoring to feel like we’d taken on too much.”

E: “The hopes and fears exercise was the foundation to creating an open environment where Kelly and I could learn and give each other feedback.

“It helped me realise that Kelly had fears too, and she was just as invested in making sure our mentoring space was safe, fun and useful. It also forced me to think about what I wanted to get out of this, and to overcome my insecurities (see post it below: “You think I am a blind idiot” 😅).”

T: “My biggest hopes were that we’d be able to create an environment where everyone is learning, we have clearly defined boundaries, and a sense of ownership over each role we play.

“The fear was we’d introduce blurry and confusing lines between the responsibilities of a manager compared to a mentor.”

The ‘Hopes and Fears’ exercise that helped everyone to better understand what they wanted to get out of the programme.

The structure
Kelly began by pairing with Elsa to better understand what she already knew and what she didn’t feel confident in. The pair of them then prioritised each topic based on:
1. How relevant the area of development was to Elsa’s squad
2. How interested Elsa was about the topic

Plotting Elsa’s improvement areas on an axis to understand which topics to prioritise (hint, look top right 👀)

Once they knew what to focus on, Kelly set up regular sessions with the aim to dedicate each one to a highlighted area.

K: “We’d started by looking at apps or websites that we thought were well or poorly designed.

“Then we narrowed down to the specifics such as visual hierarchy and layout, making sure we circled back to themes Elsa could apply to her work or that she was keen to improve on.”

Topics that brought joy to the working week
There were a few standout sessions that Elsa and Kelly particularly enjoyed:

E: “My favourite was the gradients session. I always felt I couldn’t get them right, so asked Kelly to do a deep dive. Instead of just focusing on the theory, Kelly set some light (and fun) homework. I was asked to take photos of beautiful gradients I could see in nature.

“It made me more aware of how gradients behave in the real world, and helped me to create more realistic digital versions.”

Replicating the natural gradients Elsa found on her walks 🍁

K: “The session on UI patterns stood out for me. Elsa mentioned she didn’t feel confident with terminology, and my mind was saying “she definitely knows more than she thinks she does”.

“With that in mind, I planned a Guess That UI Pattern session. There were three main goals to this: To squash her imposter syndrome showing her common patterns she’s been naturally referencing, to learn about other unknown UI patterns and to make it memorable and fun.”

A snapshot of the ‘Guess That UI Pattern’ session 📱

The more challenging elements
There were parts that stretched everyone too.

T: “We all find it hard to give difficult feedback because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Getting Kelly to do this was as much a learning curve for me as it was for her.

“This was also my first go at setting someone up for mentoring. I was worried about making sure everyone felt challenged and understood what good looked like.

“Figuring out when to check in one-on-one and when to bring the three of us together felt slightly reactive sometimes.”

E: “For me, it was sometimes difficult to have the right mindset. Some days you might feel more fragile and be out of creative juice.

“At times I was tempted to postpone, but then I would remember how much fun I had had the last time.

“I also began to accept that not knowing something is okay. When learning something new, I like to deep dive on my own, feel like I’ve perfected it and then show others.

“Showcasing my failures is something I actively shy away from. So embracing that feeling has helped, and maybe it’s just another lesson I learned from Kelly.”

K: “Aside from carving out the time to effectively plan sessions, an aspect that stretched me was to not make assumptions or sound patronising.

“Thankfully, Elsa is a chatty and open soul, and I could always sense the tone between us. Communication was always easy, and that stopped me panicking about coming across like a teacher as opposed to a colleague and friend!”

Biggest revelations
Elsa surprised herself with how much she already knew:

E: “It’s easy to underestimate the impact of external validation, and to have someone reassure you that you’re doing it right and don’t need to have all the answers.

“Kelly helped build my confidence and fill any gaps. I felt I could ask for help when I needed it without feeling like it was my fault for not knowing.”

For Kelly however, it was a revelation to realise that not everyone learns the same way.

K: “Elsa mentioned how she enjoys getting to grips with theory first and then following with application. With this in mind, I’d devised a reading list that she could dip into.

“Safe to say, this went down well. Elsa had ordered a few of the recommended books that same week!”

A reading list to aid Elsa’s learning 📚
Mishca supporting Elsa with her reading list 🐱

Biggest learnings
The following golden nuggets are useful gleanings, which can be applied to almost any strand of mentoring:

E: “Mentoring made me realise how much I love pairing with another designer. Riffing off each other lights up that creative spark in my brain and makes me explore broader ideas.

“Another revelation was that I love praise. Positive reinforcement puts a spring in my step, reassuring me that I’m learning and that expectations are met.”

K: “I realised how rewarding I find helping others. There were occasions where I’d be beaming on a call when Elsa naturally put what she’d learned into practice. I felt an instant sense of accomplishment knowing that I’d supported her ability to achieve this.”

What to do differently next time
There’s always room for improvement. The trio reflected on what they would adjust for round two. Next time, everyone would like to more clearly define how to measure success.

T: “Having a tangible way to track success, perhaps in the form of a survey at the beginning and end of the programme, would help to understand how much value mentoring is bringing.”

Elsa and Kelly also mentioned the importance of consistency and the ability to be adaptive.

E: “Life at Gousto can be a whirlwind, so mentoring sessions would often be flexible depending on when calendars aligned. In the future, I’d like to have sessions on the same day each week to have a consistent pocket of time to devote to learning.”

K: “Our digital product team moves at pace, so being adaptive to what Elsa might be jumping onto and supporting this in a streamlined way will help get the best out of her.”

It’s inspiring to see the Gousto Product Design team’s first mentoring programme result in such a success, with designers from all levels feeling more confident in their abilities.

As Gousto scales, the mentoring programme will be put to good use again. Watch this space for more juicy learnings.

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Gousto Engineering & Data Blog

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Kelly Batchelor

Kelly Batchelor

Product Designer at Gousto

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