Mentoring & Coaching - Finding your inner Miyagi
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
The line between mentor and coach has always seemed a bit blurry to me. You will mentor because you have life experience that you can pay forward. I would class this as life-coaching without the extraneous 'right-on' baggage. It may not actually matter to you that there's a difference. Truth-be-told, it's never bothered me but it's been an interesting thought experiment to delineate what I think each role comprises of within my context and my experience.
In this first part I'll look at what I think constitutes good mentoring and provide an outline of what has worked for me, along with some examples. In the second part I'll explain what I think makes for a good coach along with the key differences between the two. Part 2 here
My take is that mentoring helps build a person, both personally and professionally in their role and their attitudes, it's not timeboxed and has no formal rules.
I see coaching as much more short-term. Coaching is targeted teaching for a particular skill-set based on the particular skill-set that you (as the coach) are highly proficient in.
As with my testing approach, I like to have a consistent baseline to avoid confusion when terms are referenced.
This is what the Collins English Dictionary has to say:
Mentor - 'A person's mentor is someone who gives them help and advice over a period of time, especially help and advice related to their job.'
Coach - 'A trainer or instructor'
Nice and succinct. I like these.
Mentoring is a relationship....and like most relationships, there will be highs and there will be lows. No relationship is perfect.
The mentor models
These are the mentoring models that I'm aware of, there are probably many more:
The proxy mentor
There's a school of thought that anyone in a leadership role is a mentor by default. I take this quite seriously. A good leader will inspire by default, whether overtly or covertly. The difference between this and the other models is that this mentoring doesn't take place on a one to one basis but is mentoring by osmosis. The words and actions of a good leader will have a marked effect across the aspirations of whole teams.
The accidental mentor: I think I've stumbled into mentorship just by virtue of the role I've been engaged in. In hindsight, it appears that I've implicitly accepted that by virtue of wanting to help people succeed I automatically adopt a mentoring mindset. There's a school of thought that states that you have to be explicitly asked to mentor, I'm not sure that holds true, though it may have value for introverts.
The mentoring program: My preferred model is a mentoring program where there are a pool of volunteer mentors. They have demonstrated the attributes to become a successful mentor. They have the right temperament, attitude and communication skills and crucially, they have a genuine desire to want to help others. Their availability as mentors is promoted org-wide and people can contact them to discuss expectations. I really like this model, it leads to natural pairings that evolve organically.
The formal mentor: I've also been involved in orgs where the mentor program is more formal in that you are assigned a mentee, this always seemed like thinly disguised people management. I've been wary of these types of relationships. I think that relationships are at the heart of mentoring. Any situation in which you force people to engage without a baseline of common ground and shared values will be strained at best, fractured at worst. That isn't to say that the programs a lot of companies seem to adopt don't work, they may do, but they've always left me wondering whether it's an artificial success.
My mentoring journey
My most memorable mentor was a gruff, no-nonsense Irishman. In hindsight, he was as anti-me as I could think of. When I made mistakes there was no quiet chat, no coffee to discuss what I could have done better. It was a case of 'let's do it better'. He cared about the craft of quality, he was very aware that what we produced as deliverables could have very real effects on very real people. He also had a knack of cutting through the noise. Did he make me a better person? Absolutely. Did he make me a better tester? Absolutely. I owe him a lot. Would I have responded with another approach? Maybe, but in hindsight, it was the best approach for me at the time. Given my experience now I can point out many departures from my guidelines...but it worked for me at the time I needed it. So, on the off-chance that he stumbles across this blog, thanks Andy.
Off the top of my head I can think of 20+ people I've mentored. Of that number maybe 10 have been peers (other QA), the rest have been devs/BA's or UX. I've always been a firm believer that mentoring can occur outside of a speciality.
I've always been drawn to people that have suffered from outside perception problems. That's not meant as a slight at all, it just means that they were people who hadn't had exposure to good QA so naturally there was an element of distrust along with a generalised apathy towards the ephemeral notion of 'quality' alongside the term 'testing'. After all, wasn't that what I was employed to do?
I've mentored seasoned devs who thought that testers were impediments to delivery. I've mentored devs who approached each problem with a code-first mindset. I've also mentored devs who knew a lot about a little.
I've mentored graduates who were in the first flush of working in a development team who brought a natural enthusiasm along with a healthy scepticism towards quality. They bring ideas (direct from a closeted learning environment) that don't really align with the ideas and practices of a modern quality approach.
Importantly, I didn't mentor to provide coaching on testing skills. I mentored to open up the individuals way of approaching their thinking. This may have had an indirect effect on their perception of quality but it wasn't the primary motivation.
I enjoyed all those experiences, we can get so wrapped up in what we think we know that it's very easy to forget that what we don't know is far more important.
I've mentored junior, peer and senior roles, there is no rule that says that you can only mentor those below you in the career ladder. The value in you as a mentor is your experience, life or otherwise, that you can impart to your mentees.
What mentoring means to me
I made a lot of mistakes early on in how I interacted with the mentees. Chief amongst them? I learnt pretty quickly that I wasn't their surrogate parent.
There are particular guidelines I've developed as my experience has grown. I made a lot of mistakes early on in how I interacted with the mentees. Chief amongst them? I learnt pretty quickly that I wasn't their surrogate parent.
Each experience is different, each person is different, but there are absolutes I follow that will never change regardless of the person I mentor. This appears to be quite an exhaustive list but it isn't a roadmap. They are observations and actions that I've found that have helped me to cultivate lasting relationships.
Respect the individual: The goal is not to create a mini-me, the goal is to help the individual become a better version of themselves
Listen more than you talk: You may need to temper your natural instinct, it's less about asking questions than it is about framing the right questions based on their experiences
Ask the right questions: The most important questions you can ask as a mentor are 'What do you think?' or 'What do you think happens if you do this?'
Make it natural: Encourage people, don't force them to comply
Not multiple choice: Don't treat it like a tick-box exercise
It's not about you: The purpose is to lift the veil of uncertainty which is a long-winded way of saying 'help them understand the art of the possible' Check their understanding of any key principles, have they acted upon your advice? Have they arrived at a conclusion that is different to your advice? Does their current thinking differ from your perspective? This is incredibly valuable as it shows they are growing as an individual and as a person
It's not all sunshine and rainbows: Don't be afraid of having difficult conversations. Part of what you offer is the ability to diplomatically provide feedback. It's not just about sunshine and rainbows. You won't be effective if you only ever praise. That path will lead to ruin, both for your capabilities and your mentees confidence
Create a structure: Agree how you'll do it. This is a joint conversation. Agree on a structure, determine how they like to be interacted with, ensure that they understand the structure. Let them choose what they focus on, have a kick-off meeting where you actively listen to what they perceive to be their wants and needs. agree on how they like to receive communication. It may be that they work in a different part of the building, although F2F is the most effective, the approach needs to be determined in conjunction with the mentee
Short term goals: A mentor relationship is long-term but the goals should be short-term, set achievable, small, victories.
Build their teaching skills: Part of the remit is to create the leaders of tomorrow. Even if that isn't their primary focus or natural fit, expanding a teaching skill-set will create lots of transferable skills
Regularly review progress: Whether you meet up for a coffee once a week or once a month, set up a regular session to review progress
Agree end-goals: This means agreeing on short-term improvements that directly contribute to their long-term goals. Know how to recognise when you've reached the end of a particular learning opportunity
Be kind: You are a mentor by virtue of your experience, knowledge and communication. This does not grant you omnipotence. Even if your gold-plated advice seems the only way forward, don't dig your heels in. It's advice, not a commandment
Own your mistakes: You are human, you will make mistakes. Use these mistakes to further the relationship with the mentee. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you have all the answers. That's not how the world works. You will run into tricky situations that you aren't best placed to deal with. Be confident with your mentee, admit that you need to seek advice in dealing with it. This shows that you are human and exposes a vulnerability to the mentee that will improve the relationship
It's not sideways micro-management: Micro-management in any form is a hideous leadership style. A mentor will not attempt to manage in any capacity
Be aware: Look out for the person you mentor. If they crop up in conversations, how are they perceived? Have an awareness of the other personalities that make up their immediate eco-system. Be aware of the dynamic that exists. By the very fact that you have experience that exceeds the mentee you need to take care that you don't create a paralysing situation, you want this person to take advice. A simple 'hi' at the coffee station will help in creating a natural flow. You don't want to end up in a stilted relationship. You aren't a superhero
Know yourself: Carry out regular introspectives on yourself. Are you still the best person to continue their growth, is there someone better placed to continue their education. Don't be precious about relinquishing the reins. It's not a slight on yourself to admit that they've outgrown you. If anything, it's a huge compliment that you've contributed to that person becoming who they are and they are ready for the next phase. Be aware, and proud, that you've created a lasting relationship
Experiences help people grow
Someone wants to gain confidence in public speaking. An experience to meet this goal could be presenting a 99-second talk to you, then their immediate peers, then QA + Devs. Next step is a lightning talk of 7 minutes long....and so on and so forth. They could aim to ask at least 5 questions in a standup or a refinement, then 6 questions. It's measurable and has mini-goals.
They could have an objective of introducing themselves to at least one new person at the org per week, either in person or via a message. It doesn't need to be a forced oratory, a simple, 'Hi, I'm x, I work in x, I'm improving my communication skills / increasing my confidence, what is your name?'. This works for introverts.
They may want to improve their critical thinking skills for the inevitable 'testing is a bottle-neck' conversations. You could recommend reading or an online course. Their critical thinking faculties may short-circuit as a result of stress. You could advise on relaxation techniques. Longer term you could ask them to informally debate you, with you acting as a devils advocate.
A good mentor will be remembered long after the mentoring period has finished.
Good mentoring is difficult but ultimately very rewarding. Mentoring can occur outside your specialisation. Mentoring can, and will, use elements of coaching. Mentoring is not an opportunity to create a mini-me. A good mentor will take the time to get to know the person. A good mentor can read the mentee. A good mentor will understand the weaknesses of the mentee. A good mentor will challenge the mentee. A good mentor is always open to be challenged. A good mentor will be remembered long after the mentoring period has finished.