One reason I’ve remained committed to my craft as a designer is through the network I’ve built over the years. I’m sure the same can be said for folks who work in engineering, data, politics, science, and other fields. But how do you build this network? What does it take to find a mentor within it? What does “mentorship” even mean?
I’ll walk you through what I think mentorship means and how you can find folks for yourself. My hottest take: mentorship shouldn’t be a big, official thing. Instead, mentorship should be organic and symbiotic.
According to Janice Omadeki, Founder and CEO of The Mentor Method:
“mentoring should be a fulfilling relationship between somebody with more experience and somebody with less, with the goal of helping both individuals become elevated versions of themselves.”
To me, a mentor is someone I can turn to if I get stuck on a career problem, whether it be a set of colors that just don’t look right or interpersonal conflicts I can’t seem to solve.
You might be wondering, “well isn’t that a manager?” And sure, a good manager will certainly help with these topics, but perhaps you’re at a point in your career where your manager is not a reflection of what you want to be pursuing, or perhaps inaccessible entirely. What do you do then?
I suggest you get by with a little help from your friends.
Look around where you work (and if you work remotely, look through your Slack ), and make a list of who you look up to. This can be someone who works in the area you’re looking to pivot to, or someone who’s incredibly talented at a part of your craft you’re looking to sharpen. Want to untangle massive data sets? Is there a data scientist for you to sit down with?
I ask myself questions in pairs when I’m trying to identify the right mentors:
- When I picture myself five years from now, what qualities or skills do I see in myself? Who has those qualities or skills now?
- What was I recently stuck on? Who might have insight to help me get “unstuck”?
- If I figured it out on my own, who can I ask for feedback on how I might be able to do it better next time?
- What do I need feedback on? Who is best positioned to give me feedback on said thing?
When I worked on my office redesign project, I remember my lovely colleague Anthony Maitz (Tony) constantly pushed me to observe every problem I encountered as a design problem. As a Designer turned Product Manager, Tony’s thoughtfulness in approaching and investigating problems kicked off my own reframing. Whenever I ran into an issue as an Office Manager, a role typically filled with repetitive operational tasks, Tony pushed me to iterate on the processes of running an office: from stocking a fridge to running community events. His reframing meant I looked at the employees in the office as my users, and identified ways to improve their work experience at the office.
It may have seemed a bit silly at the time, for example, looking at a messy printer room and thinking to myself “how might we improve the printing experience for employees,” but that reframing has traveled with me to this day:
- I run DesignOps experiments to test new ways of working with Product Managers, Designers and Engineers
- I approach mentorship from an angle of deeply understanding my mentees and identifying mentee-centered ways to strengthen their design practice
- I even approach home projects using “how might we” exercises; for example: how might we seamlessly host more people on our terrace?
If you’re not so sure of the people in your workplace, then look to your peer network. Do you have friends pushing themselves in their careers in a way you admire? If so, they could be a helpful person to turn to when you’re confused. Remember, these folks don’t have to be in the same field as you!
Over the past year I’ve helped a dear friend of mine strengthen their skills in design and research. What started off as additional career mentorship to complement what they were receiving from their bootcamp, became a symbiotic relationship where we swap ideas and approaches on research while also giving each other feedback on our writing. Not only have we both grown professionally in the past year, but our friendship has gotten stronger in the process, too. (Thank you Cat! ❤ )
Lastly, there are vast communities on LinkedIn, so if someone works at a company you admire, or puts out content you’re excited to read, that’s another resource for you to potentially tap into.
Here’s my hot take — I don’t think you need to explicitly ask someone to be your mentor. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever officially asked someone to be my mentor. Sure, during some of my programs with DesignLab I received a time-bound mentor with the class, but for my more grassroots relationships, I just went with the flow.
I think asking someone to officially be your mentor, unless you’re paying for their services, can be a big ask out of someone’s day-to-day, and it puts more pressure on them than they may be willing to take on.
I appreciate what Julie Zhou said about this topic in her book “Making a Manager”:
“Nobody wants to be asked, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ Because it sounds needy and time-consuming. But ask for specific advice instead, and you’ll find tons of people willing to help.”
For example, if I’m looking to switch careers I might ask someone:
- “What was the biggest challenge you faced in your first role?”
- “If you could do it all over again, what would you change?”
- “Where do you see the field going in the next five years?”
Realistically, you might get ghosted, and that’s okay! Cast a wide net, especially if you’re reaching out to folks who are entirely outside of your network. Eventually, someone will probably say yes to a quick coffee chat, and just be prepared to make the best use of that time.
As someone who takes mentorship calls regularly, I am always excited to meet someone new and help ideate on ways to propel their career forward. It wasn’t that long ago that I was in their shoes, and it brings me immense joy to put the same love and care back into the community that shaped who I am today.
Frequency is completely dependent on who you’re meeting with and what you’re meeting with them about. Is the scenario you’re looking for mentorship just a moment in time? That might mean one meeting every so often as things creep up. Are you looking for a new job and need coaching on how to interview? Perhaps that requires a more regular cadence to check in on the interview progress and ways to improve.
Ultimately, your cadence is entirely dependent on the problem you’re looking to solve and the time your mentor(s) will give you.
Again, this ties back to the problem you’re looking to solve. Similar to a manager one-on-one, you should come prepared with topics to cover.
When I was working at ThoughtWorks SF at the earlier stage of my career, I remember reaching out to Emily Luke, an incredible researcher who was also working at ThoughtWorks SF on a tool called Mingle. I was slowly learning different UX design frameworks for synthesizing research, and wanted to learn more about how she integrated frameworks like empathy maps, personas, and user journeys into her work product. I asked her for an hour of time, provider her with some context, came prepared with questions, and we dug deeper into each framework.
She might not have known it, but in exactly that moment, she was my trusted advisor, mentoring me on how to apply these methodologies in thoughtful ways, and dispelling my [incorrect] assumption that these approaches were somewhat unnecessary. Because I valued her opinion and craft, it completely changed my perspective on generating research artifacts. Ultimately, this experience deepened my love of research, and helped me see it wasn’t just “checking the boxes” of a design process.
Since my relationship with mentors has always been fluid, there never really was a start and end. If you have an official meeting with someone for a length of time, you can thank them for their time and say you won’t need to meet with them any longer. If it’s something less official, you can just let it fizzle out. There is absolutely no need to make this a bigger deal than it needs to be!
That said, sending former mentors a thank you or an update is always nice. It brings me joy to hear back from former students or mentees and hear how they’re progressing in their careers.
Mentorship is an important part of everyone’s career. We were all once mentees and eventually, we will probably become someone’s mentor, whether explicitly or not. If you really want to deepen your craft, talk to the people around you: what worked for them, what they may have done differently, and ideas on how to progress forward.
I’m a firm believer that it takes investing in our community to truly harness our full potential.
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