Blame it on Hollywood, but most people effortlessly appreciate and relate to the idea of a coach in the sporting arena. It seems obvious. However, the idea of a coach in the field of skilled knowledge work is not talked about in sufficient depth, to the point where we grossly underestimate the importance of this. The truth is that when you are caught up in the motions of “do-ing”, as we all are on a day-to-day basis, it takes someone who is not “you” to help you frame your goals in the context of the bigger picture, to help you strategise accordingly, and to deliberately push you to your areas of discomfort — the zone where true growth happens. This someone is the mentor/guide/coach, whatever we choose to call them.
Most of the questions and comments on my previous article revolved around the first two points on mentors. It appears finding one seems easier said than done; a “great-to-have”, if only we knew how to go about it. Where do I find mentors? How do I know if I have found the right person? How do I know they will act in my best interest? This article attempts to elaborate on this and a lot more.
Mentors do not automatically find you
Many people seem to assume that a mentor or guide will just find their way to them. No, the world does not owe you that. It may so happen that every now and then, a talented person is identified and mentored by your VP of engineering, but that doesn’t say much for the large number of people out there, working hard at their jobs every single day.
The truth is that you have to actively seek out mentors. This relationship will work to your advantage only if you are personally convinced of their value, and approach them with some humility. This is the one thing I have always done. This may have to do with the fact that I came into the tech world with little to no background on technology (unless my computer science course in high school counts). In the early days of my career, I had to learn, and learn fast. So, I actively sought out people who could guide me. It was an absolute necessity for me. This proceeded to become a habit in every organisation I subsequently worked at.
Choose people who display a high degree of competency in their job
It is easy to identify such people. Just closely observe your colleagues. They are respected by their peers. They are valued for their contributions. These people are typically very keen to do their jobs well, and deeply care about delivering high quality outcomes. In short, they are very skilled at what they do and take immense pride in their work.
Look for people with a high degree of emotional maturity
This is harder to find. Try to steer clear of brilliant jerks, unless you have the emotional resilience to put up with some abuse. I have quietly adopted some “brilliant jerks” as my mentors because it served my purpose at the time. I admired their work too much to care about their rough edges. However, remember that you are likely to mirror their behaviour in the long run, so look for the kind of person you aspire to be. It helps to identify people who are generally calm, and desist from emotional outbursts. It also helps to look for people who display empathy in their daily life. They typically reach out to teammates when they need help, and avoid judging people too soon. Emotional maturity can also easily be assessed by observing how they handle conflicts, and in the way they treat junior colleagues.
They could be inside or outside your organisation
A mentor should ideally be someone with experience in your area of work, regardless of whether they’re inside or outside the organisation you work for. At the very least, they should have some exposure to your job function, even if they haven’t directly worked in that specific field. In such cases, they will at least be in a position to point you to the right people or the right resources. It helps to find one in your organisation because they have greater context, but this becomes harder as you rise higher up the org hierarchy. I personally believe that even CEOs need mentors because they help you think outside the box. Many C-suite leaders opt for “executive coaches” precisely for this reason.
Just go up and speak to them
It takes a lot of courage to ask for help. It is not an easy thing to do in an age where “not showing weakness” is mistakenly seen as a badge of pride. Vulnerability is one of the most honest and authentic expressions of the self. Nine times out of ten, people will be glad to take up the mantle. They feel validated, and they are eager to assist. Remember, you are doing this for yourself and your career, so set aside your ego.
You needn’t explicitly designate someone your mentor
Having said that, the idea here is to have someone to guide you and help you take tough decisions. In the early stages of my career, I was quite open about whom I looked up to. With experience, I wasn’t as explicit. I do still have my eyes set on the people I believe will help me grow. I carefully observe them, find ways to be around them, listen to them, think like them and spend time picking their brains. When I am confused, I have absolutely no qualms about presenting my dilemmas to them. I have always come away with clarity. But you have to be willing to listen.
Establish a relationship of accountability and trust
In Zen practice, the teacher-student relationship is one of accountability and trust. There is a reason for this. For a mentor to be invested in your growth, you need to display integrity in your actions. If you don’t act on what you have committed to do, you can’t expect someone to be motivated enough to spend their valuable time on you. The other side of the coin is you should be able to trust the person whose guidance you seek. Do they have your best interests at heart? Will they keep your confidence? Do they seek to understand your unique context and take your capabilities into account? Observe, and ask these questions before you choose someone.
If all of this sounds too complicated, it’s not. More often than not, your intuition will guide you quite well.