“I Have Potential Energy” by TheShirtYurt

Advisor, Coach, Teacher or Mentor. Who do you want to be?

Be deliberate about how you support and grow others

At Redbubble, we put a lot of focus on the growth of our engineers. Like many other modern tech companies, we maintain a career progression or growth framework. A well thought out framework gives you lots of benefits, including:

  • Career guidance and opportunities
  • Clear guidelines on what you expect on each level
  • Objective evaluation and fair pay

But I digress. This is not an article about growth frameworks, but rather one aspect of what it means to be an impactful engineer: Supporting others and helping them get better at their jobs.

More experienced developers should share their knowledge with those that have not been around for as long. And our growth framework puts quite a bit of emphasis on it from the early levels. We refer to it as mentoring.

All was well until a member of our senior group pointed out that we might have a naming issue.

What do we really mean when we say mentoring? What does a mentor do? Are there other ways to help those around you? If not mentoring, what are we expecting of our engineers?

This sparked my interest and got me thinking. In my opinion, there are four distinct and useful ways to help others grow. I hope my categorisation will help you pick the best approach for any situation.

Disclaimer: These are the definitions I currently use. It is certainly not the only way to define these approaches.

Advising

Advising is about getting results, not teaching a skill.

An advising situation is pretty straightforward. Someone asks for help and you jump in to help solve the issue. Other than the immediate situation, not much more commitment is required. The main focus is to get a result, as fast as possible.

It might sound like there is no learning benefit to the person asking. And while the main focus is not on growth, there still can be learning. Advising does not mean doing someones else’s job. But it means to give very clear instructions about what needs to get done.

Advising works well if you are short on time and you want to achieve impact quickly. The biggest drawback is the missing focus on personal growth.

Coaching

Coaching is about helping someone help themselves.

When we hear the word coach, most of us might think of the sports variety. And while there are some similarities, being a coach in the professional world is a different story.

I was lucky enough to go through a workshop on coaching not too long ago. And it opened my eyes to it. The following is a fairly simplified description of coaching. If you want more detail, I recommend you get a copy of Co-Active Coaching.

The inquiry-driven approach of coaching

As a coach you focus 100% on the other person. You want to help your coachee gain clarity. Get them to think through the situation. And work with them to come up with solutions. Your guiding principles are curiosity and the belief that everybody is smart and capable.

It is not about giving someone your opinion or advice. There is no (hidden) agenda from your end. No specific outcome you want to achieve. The one and only focus is that your coachee makes progress on the situation.

Coaching is a great fit if you are unattached to the specific outcome, not the subject matter expert and not pressed for time. It is, however, a skill that needs training and lots of practice.

Mentoring

Mentoring is a long-term relationship helping someone succeed, with shared accountability.

The problem with the way we used mentoring in our growth framework was that it covered all four categories described in this article. But for me, it is something very specific.

As a mentor, you enter into an ongoing relationship with someone. One that focuses on the growth of your mentee. You should be very clear and open about what the desired outcome is, and how support is given. And most importantly, both of you are accountable for the success of this partnership.

Mentoring works well if the relationship is beneficial for both the mentor and mentee. Due to the long-term nature, it requires a high time investment.

Teaching

Teaching is about sharing knowledge now so others can be more effective in the future.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That is really what teaching is all about. You invest some time now to help your pupil(s) be more effective going forward.

The important aspect — and where teaching is different from advising — is the intent. Advising is all about getting results now, while teaching does not worry about impact right away. It is more long-term focused.

You can teach in lots of different situations. It does not have to be a school-like setup, where one person presents to a group. As long as the focus is on sharing knowledge.

Teaching is a good choice if you have well-defined and proven information that can be shared. It does not work well in an area that is constantly changing or not fully explored.

Takeaway

Once you have reached a certain level of experience and skill, you will focus a considerable amount of your time on helping others. Helping others to become better at what they are doing.

Advising, Coaching, Mentoring, and Teaching are all tools at your disposal to have a lasting impact in this area. Being deliberate about which one you choose is the key to being successful at it.