At SharpestMinds, we've connected over 500 aspiring data scientists, data analysts, machine learning engineers, and data engineers with mentors to help them kick-start their careers. Along the way, we've learned a lot about what makes a mentorship successful.
It's a two-way street. Both mentor and mentee have to come to the table with the right attitude. But if you're setting out on a journey to mentor someone, keep in mind that your behavior will have an outsized influence and impact on the person you're mentoring.
Here are 5 lessons we've learned about what makes a great mentor.
1. Set clear expectations.
Before you start, be as explicit as you can about your expectations for the relationship.
It's common, especially when mentoring informally, to leave these expectations unspoken. But mentees and mentors will often have different assumptions about what a mentorship entails. These mismatched expectations can lead to increased friction in the relationship—friction that can be avoided with clear and honest expectation setting.
Be clear about what you can help with and what you can't. If you are a Data Analyst, for example, you may not be equipped to help someone who hopes to be a machine learning engineer (and vice-versa).
As a mentor, you should be clear on what value you can provide:
- Can you help your mentee decide on a project?
- Will you do code-review?
- Will you do mock interviews?
- How much help with networking and job search strategy can you provide?
Just as important is setting expectations around communication:
- How often will you meet, and when? (e.g. every Wednesday at 5 pm)
- What will the agenda of your weekly meetings look like? (e.g. progress updates, settings goals, general discussion)
- What will your primary channel for communication be? (e.g. email, Slack)
- When should your mentee expect responses from you? (e.g. within 24 hrs, not on Sundays)
Finally, what do you expect from your mentees? Should they update you daily on their progress? Weekly? What problems should they come to you with? How should they be spending their time?
Try and elicit your mentee's expectations in these areas as well. Your mentorship will start on a good footing if you are both aligned on a set of clear expectations.
2. Practice open communication.
It's important to maintain a habit of open and honest communication with your mentee. Even— especially!—when it's awkward. This will let you catch mismatched expectations early and course-correct.
But honest communication can be challenging for mentees because there is often a perceived power dynamic in the relationship. You're more senior and experienced. They may be afraid to bring up issues or admit weaknesses out of a fear of looking bad or disappointing you.
There a few things you can do as a mentor to build a habit of trust and open communication.
- Periodically ask your mentee for feedback. This reinforces a healthy communication protocol in which it's normal for your mentee to voice their concerns.
- Thank your mentee whenever they bring something up, even if it's negative. Something as simple as "thanks for letting me know" can go a long way to make people feel comfortable.
- Lead by example. Your mentee will see you as a role-model. If you're honest and open with them, they'll be more likely to be honest and open with you.
3. Direct, don't dictate.
A mentorship isn't a student-teacher relationship.
Don't dictate that your mentee does specific things in specific ways. It's not about holding their hand (or perhaps dragging them) through this process. It's much better to let them work, explore, and grow on their own. But with you pointing out good directions to explore—helping them along the way if they get lost.
Think of how a gardener prunes their vegetable patch. The gardener doesn't try to enforce that their plants grow in a particular way. Instead, they give little nudges. They plant the seeds and stake the guideposts, but the plants grow as they need to.
While it's totally okay to do some explicit teaching, the real leverage comes from teaching your mentee how to think, not what to think. How should they approach a new problem? How should they think about prioritization? How can they communicate better? How should they think about their career goals?
Guide them towards best practices, but be patient—they have to get there on their own.
4. Be supportive.
Perhaps the most valuable thing you can bring to the table as a mentor is also the hardest to measure. Emotional support.
Learning a new skill or finding a new job can be some of the loneliest and most frustrating times in one's life. Lists of technical requirements can feel endless and unachievable. An abundance of content and information on the internet can be overwhelming. New job seekers might apply to hundreds of roles before landing one.
Without support, their motivation will run out and they'll start to give up. You can have an outsized impact just by showing up and being there for them. Empathize with their struggle, boost their confidence, let them know they don't have to do it alone.
Try and maintain a regular check-in schedule. Weekly meetings are a good idea—even if it feels like there's nothing to talk about. It's important to show up and demonstrate that you care. Like any relationship, if you regularly cancel or miss meetings, it's a signal to the other person that they are not a priority.
Sometimes life happens. If you need to cancel a meeting, give plenty of warning and try and reschedule. If you know that you'll have an extended period where you can't meet, it's better to set expectations early rather than cancel week after week. This is why we allow mentors and mentees on SharpestMinds to pause their mentorships if they need to.
5. Think long-term.
"Play long term games with long term people"
The real value of mentoring someone doesn't manifest immediately. Put some genuine time into helping someone at the start of their career and it will pay dividends later on. They will value your help sincerely and you never know how the favor will be returned. If you're looking for a new hire, need a referral or connection, or just need some advice yourself—your mentees will the most valuable connections in your network.
Don't take shortcuts. Optimize for the long term. This might mean breaking hard news to your mentee. Perhaps they are not ready for that career transition yet, or they need to lower their expectations. Focus on skills and lessons that will help them throughout their career, not just tomorrow. Mentorships on SharpestMinds include income share agreements to incentive longer-term thinking.
We consider a mentorship successful if it results in a meaningful, long-term relationship—and so should you.
Mentoring someone—especially early in their career—can be incredibly valuable for the mentee but also incredibly rewarding for the mentor. If you're ready to help the next generation break into the world of data, apply to be a mentor here.