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Tech Career Insights: What Skills Do You Need to Become a Successful Mentor?
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What Skills Do You Need to Become a Successful Mentor?

By Andréa Reid

The link between mentoring and career development is well established. That’s why tech giants like Uber, PayPal and Amazon all have mentorship programmes for their tech teams. But successful mentorship doesn’t just happen on its own. Both parties need put in time and effort and acquire some key skills. Here’s an overview of the skills you need to be a great mentor.

Skills to Become a Successful Mentor

OfferZen’s State of the Development Nation reports for South Africa and the Netherlands both showed that mentorship and opportunities for growth are key reasons why developers stay in a role. Over our three years of engaging with hundreds of developers and mentors at Project Thrive, we’ve been able distill key skills needed for success.

Shared skills for a great mentoring relationship

Mentorship takes place between two parties, and the dynamic between the pair is mission-critical. There are core skills that both individuals need to cultivate, as well as individual skills that help mentors and mentees in their specific roles.

This core skill set includes active listening, the ability to build trust, and encouraging others. Here’s what that means for a mentor.

Active listening

Without active listening, your mentoring relationship will be built on shaky foundations. Mentorship is a two-way street, and when you listen and truly hear what the other party has to say, powerful things can happen.

As a mentor, active listening can enable you to accurately gauge where your mentee needs input and guidance. This practice will also help you get to know your mentee better, and understand how they approach problems and opportunities.

So, how do you practise active listening? Too often, we spend time in conversation contemplating what we’ll say next, jumping to conclusions, and focusing on solving problems immediately. When we do this, we’re not really listening to each other.

Here are some tips for active listening:

  • Make sure you don’t interrupt
  • Pay attention to body language and other signals
  • Don’t assume knowledge or intent
  • Reserve judgement and
  • Make sure you’re not imposing your own ideas and fixes onto the other person

There are far more opportunities for learning when mentors and mentees work on being problem explorers, and thinking partners, together.

You can also work on a few behaviours that help to show the other person that you’re paying attention to them. That includes maintaining eye contact, and other physical signs of engagement like nodding your head or smiling.

A good practice for active listening is to summarise the crux of what’s been said in the conversation and jot down a few notes to follow up on.

If your mentee is working on an exciting new project with a new programming language, that’s something you can check in on. Aside from possible new learnings from their experiences, this is a good chance to build on your relationship and demonstrate that you’ve been listening actively.

Building trust

Next up on the roster is the ability to build trust. A mentoring partnership requires commitment and trust, and the stronger this foundation is, the better things will pan out for everyone involved.

**These are our top tips for building trust in a mentorship relationship: **

  • Be accountable: If you make a mistake, that’s ok. But you need to be honest about it and work to resolve it. If you make a promise, see it through.
  • Keep confidences: Where confidences are respected, trust can follow. Mentorship can take us to a place of vulnerability and both parties need to feel safe enough to share their struggles openly.
  • Respect boundaries: You need to establish expectations and clear boundaries in a mentorship pair, and respecting these is key to the success of the endeavour.

Encouraging others

Mentors and mentees need to support each other. That’s part of what makes mentorship so powerful. Taking your next career step can be scary. If things are tough, we need to hold each other up. And if things go well, mentorship can be a space for reflection, celebration and learning how and why things went well.

Praise and encouragement is an impactful tool that helps to build confidence in mentees.

Skills for mentors

While a mentor brings years of experience and skill into the mentorship dynamic, there are numerous soft skills that mentors should cultivate to improve outcomes.

You’ll need to push your mentee to work on new skills or supercharge existing ones. You’ll need to provide effective and constructive feedback. You’ll need to help your mentee to assess risks and challenges. And finally, you’ll help your mentee to expand their network and prospects.

Guide through coaching

While an effective mentorship partnership should avoid the hierarchical teacher–student dynamic, a mentor will always need to drive some sort of training or help their mentee to upskill.

You can prepare to do this well by cultivating a set of quality resources to share with your mentee. This might include texts, websites or other resources. It might also be contacts who can share expertise on particular topics.

Where you have experience in a subject or skill, you can impart that knowledge to your mentee. Or, if you’ve worked to develop a particular capability, like managing work relationships better, you can share your own experiences and struggles with your mentee. Since you want to prompt your mentee to work on improving their problem solving, you can plan out questions that’ll help your mentee to consider how they would have managed the dynamic if they were in your shoes.

Since you’ve been in the development space for longer, you have valuable perspectives on how different specialisations work together and the various career paths and progressions available to your mentee. This is valuable information to share. Following that, you can work with your mentee on their goal-setting, and help them to set goals more effectively and finetune their development.

Challenge your mentee

It’s a mentor’s responsibility to push their mentee outside of their comfort zone.

Help your mentee to aim higher, with ambitious but achievable goals and standards. This might include setting new tasks that would include working on a new programming framework. And as they work on tackling these tasks, work on finessing their thinking so they’re stepping outside of any preconceptions or assumptions.

Provide constructive feedback

While encouragement is key to effective mentoring, you need to make sure that you’re also providing constructive feedback on an ongoing basis. If you spot an area where your mentee could have changed their approach for a better outcome, communicate this to them clearly and kindly.

Help your mentee manage risks

Any new endeavour will come with some element of risk, and mentees need guidance as they weigh up which risks are manageable, and which are insurmountable. As a mentor, you should work with your mentee to identify any likely risks that a project or decision might incur.

For example, if your mentee wants to take on more responsibility in a project they’re working on, they’ll be more accountable for mistakes and delays in the project rollout. Work with them to identify possible issues, offer up suggestions to help them avoid these problems and workshop techniques on preparing well.

There are additional tools that’ll help you with this process. For example, at Project Thrive, we provide tools to help mentees work through the SWOT analysis to account for and plan to tackle any threats upfront.

Open doors for your mentee

You’re your mentee’s best champion and can help them get noticed by the right people and considered for opportunities where they can show off their new skillset.

Think about who you can introduce your mentee to and look out for opportunities or events where your mentees would be able to engage with these individuals. If you have exciting meetings or projects on the cards, you could invite your mentee along to observe. You can also keep an eye out for and encourage them to join professional development programs or events that tap into their career goals.

Of course, any recommendations by you reflect back on you, so you’ll first want to make sure that your mentee is equipped to manage any opportunities that come through you. Make sure you’re transparent about this and be sure to use your judgement.

If you want to hone the skills you need to make a mentorship relationship a success, sign up to our mentorship programme Project Thrive.

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