The Shifting Lens of Mentoring

The other day I realized that I had become the “old man” at Tech Field Day. Not so much that I’m ready for AARP but more that I’ve been there longer than anyone else but Stephen. The realization was a long time coming but the thing that pushed me to understand it was when someone asked a question about a policy we had and I not only knew the reason why we did it but also a time before we had it.

As I spent time thinking about the way that I’ve graduated from being the new guy to the old mentor I thought about the inflection point when the changeover happened.

Green and Growing

The first part of the demarcation between mentor and mentee in my eyes is where the knowledge lies. When you’re first starting out you’re the one that needs to understand things. You ask lots and lots of questions and try to understand how things are done and why you do them that way. Focusing on that knowledge acquisition is part of the marker of someone in need of mentorship.

For those trying to mentor these eager employees don’t make the mistake of getting frustrated at the constant questioning. As someone that constantly has to understand the what and the why behind things I have been known to overwhelm those that would prefer to just tell me how things are done and move on with it.

When I see that level of curiosity in others I realize that they’re not trying to change things for the sake of change. Unlike others who might just want to make changes as a method of controlling the processes, eager learners are usually asking questions about the process because they need to understand the reasoning behind it. Often they have a unique perspective they can impart to the problem or some other knowledge they can use to streamline things. Even if they don’t you can help them understand why the process or policy is done in a specific way.

Guidance for the Eager

Coming back to that moment of realization from earlier means knowing the answers to the questions being asked are ones you have. Some people are designated as mentors based on their desire to share knowledge with others. In smaller organizations that may not be possible. You may find yourself mentoring others simply because you know what they need to learn and there’s no one else to teach them.

When you realize that you’re the one that knows the answer to the question you should step forward into a mentoring role. That’s what it feels like to be the “old timer” at the office. You’ve been around when the policies were made or perhaps you were the mentee asking all the questions right after that. Either way you have knowledge that needs to be shared with others.

That is the real inflection point. The knowledge transfer. Note that this has nothing to do with seniority or age or even organizational structure. This has everything to do with skills and information. You could be mentoring a younger new employee in the process for contracts today. And that same employee could be offering you guidance and help in a new email program or social media platform tomorrow. The mentoring relationship doesn’t always have to be one-way.

The dynamic nature of the mentoring relationship is one area I feel like we could always strive to do better at. We often see the older, more tenured employees as the default mentors. While that is true it undervalues the knowledge that new employees can have. Maybe this person is just starting out in the accounting department. However, if they were an accountant for the last three years do you think that means they don’t have the skills? Or perhaps it’s just that they need to understand the specifics of their role here. I’d wager that if you asked them for ways you could improve the accounting process they’d have some suggestions for you.

Tom’s Take

I didn’t necessarily see myself as a mentor until it was staring me right in the face. Yes, I had agreed to train people in certain aspects of their roles but the idea that I was doing it more as a form of knowledge transfer hadn’t really occurred to me until I found myself answering questions because I was the only one that had those answers. As you look for ways to cultivate and grow mentoring relationships don’t forget to share what you’ve learned but also seek out things that you want to understand. That knowledge will serve you well and also give you an opportunity to give it back down the road to a new group of people in need of mentorship.

Looking For a Mentor? Don’t Forget This Important Step!

With the insanity of the pandemic and the knowledge drain that we’re seeing across IT in general, there’s never been a more important time than right now to help out those that are getting started on this rise. The calls for mentors across the community is heartwarming. I’ve been excited personally to see many recognizable names and faces in the Security, Networking, and Wireless communities reaching out to let people know they are available to mentor others or connect them with potential mentors. It’s a way to give back and provide servant leadership to those that need it.

If you’re someone that’s reading this blog right now and looking for a mentor you’re in luck. There are dozens of people out there that are willing to help you out. The kindness of the community is without bounds and there are those that know what it was like to wander through the wilderness for a while before getting on the right track. They are the ones that will be of the most help to you. However, before you slide into someone’s DMs looking for help, you need to keep a few things in mind.

Make Me One With Everything

The single most important step you can take to increase your chances of being mentored or being set up with someone to help you out is simple in theory but hard in practice:

You NEED to do your homework.

Sound contrite, right? You don’t know what you don’t know. You need to figure out what you have to have, right? Why not ask someone that has been there and have them tell you everything?

Let me give you the perspective of someone who mentors and teaches in all aspects of my life. The scouts, professionals, and students that come to me and say, “Tell me everything I need to know” are usually the ones that listen the least and forget the most. They are the people that haven’t done their homework. They haven’t looked up what interests them or tried to figure out what knowledge they’re missing. They want answers but don’t have questions. Without questions, answers are meaningless.

Moreover, telling someone “everything” is a recipe for disaster. How does a mentor know what to focus on? What areas interest you? In security, are you offensive or defensive? Do you enjoy writing reports or using tools? Do you want to be a per-work consultant or have a steady, if not smaller, paycheck from a single organization? How can a mentor know where to point you if you haven’t done this basic homework?

Let me give you an example that happened to me in the last week. I got a DM from someone I’ve never talked to before. They politely asked if I could answer a couple of questions for them. I said sure with some hesitation. Usually this means they’re looking for some very broad advice or they need help with their homework. When the questions appeared in my inbox, I asked for some clarification. In this instance, it was someone that needed to understand queuing mechanisms. Once I determined I wasn’t doing someone’s CS homework for them, I read up on the topic and explained what I thought was the case. I was pleasantly surprised to get a response that they had read the same paper and it sounded right but they wanted to understand deeper. We talked for a bit and I feel like the person walked away from the exchange with a greater understanding.

What made me happy in this situation is that the person did the work ahead of time instead of just saying, “teach me how this works”. They wanted to understand, not just get the answer to a multiple choice question. They were curious and wanted to learn the right way. These are the kind of people that benefit from mentors. They are self-motivated and willing to do the work to get ahead.

Help Is Always Given To Those Who Ask

You may have heard the phrase, “Help will come to those that help themselves”. It’s another bit of cliche that means you need to be as active in the process as the person you are seeking knowledge from. If you just show up and say, “I need to know everything starting from scratch”, you’re sending the message that you aren’t invested. Mentors don’t want to help those that aren’t invested.

On the other hand, if someone comes to me and says, “I tried this and it failed and I got this message. I looked it up and the response didn’t make sense. Can you tell me why that is?” I rejoice. That person has done the legwork and narrowed the question down to the key piece they need to know. They don’t need to “boil the ocean” so to speak. They have a specific need that can be met.

Mentors are people too. Maybe they enjoy teaching and guiding more than others but they have limits on their energy just like you would. If a mentor spends more time exerting themselves trying to teach someone everything starting from zero, they’re going to burn out. However, teaching someone that just needs a little extra push to get over the hump of a hard problem is a much better use of everyone’s time. The mentor gets the reward of seeing their student understand and the mentee gets the satisfaction of getting it right and doing the work before they ask for help.

Asking someone for help is never easy. It’s an admission that you don’t have all the answers and you need to rely on others. In a profession where being smart and knowing everything is seen as a sign of success it can be humbling to admit you need something from someone. However, I find that those that need the least amount of help from having exhausted their capabilities are usually the ones that learn the most over time and rely on their peers and mentors the least. They know what to do and where to start. They just need a helping hand to get over the line.

Tom’s Take

I am always willing to be a mentor for anyone that needs help. I can help you understand protocols, tie tripod lashings, and teach you more than you ever wanted to know about building space probes or speaking in public. That’s the life I’ve chosen for myself. However, I ask that all those that seek my mentoring help also commit to learning. Do the extra work ahead of time. Narrow your focus to what is essential to get over the hump. Realize that the more you do for yourself the more meaningful it is for you. And remember that those that mentor you are also on the learning journey themselves. Just as they help you, so too do others help them. And one day you will find yourself in the position to mentor others. Showing the investment and determination to go the extra mile for yourself is the example that you will set for those that come later.