Mentoring. We all know mentoring is good for your career, but sometimes it's hard to make time to find and meet with mentors. Here's how mentoring can make a big difference in the way you work:
So mentoring is good, but how can you convince someone to invest the time and energy into mentoring you, particularly if you can't make that face-to-face connection with them or develop familiarity by working together in a colocated office?
Mentoring can be difficult if you're a remote employee. In an office, you might bump into someone you admire and ask them questions, your manager might walk over and introduce you to someone, or you might buy someone coffee or lunch while picking their brain. When you're remote, you need to be more creative about connecting with people.
On the plus side, you can connect with possible mentors around the world. This means you can learn from very different perspectives. You can get a sense of what life and work is like in different business units and geographies.
In IBM, you can use the Bluepages company directory system to find people who have volunteered to mentor other people. IBM Learning organizes speed-mentoring events where you can connect with many possible mentors, ask quick questions, and follow up for additional help or introductions. IBMers are also usually open to e-mail requests or questions.
Mentors can be older than you or younger than you, in the same business unit or in a different one, next door or around the world. Keep your mind open, and reach out. It doesn't hurt to ask.
You can build a mentoring relationship over time. Start by connecting with your potential mentor and asking for a small piece of advice. Act on that advice if it's good. Send a thank-you note with the results. Ask for more advice, and share more updates. Share what you've been learning from other people, too. If it turns out to be a good fit for both you and the other person, you might ask if you can set up a regular monthly chat to learn more.
If your potential mentor posts blog entries or profile updates, you can use that to build a relationship as well. Read what they post, comment, and share any updates on insights you've picked up from them and applied in your work or life. Send thanks - or better yet, post your thanks online too.
Helping others is fulfilling, and you'll learn a lot along the way. Even if you don't consider yourself an expert, you've probably learned a lot of things you take for granted. You can help people get started, save time, and learn more. Give mentoring a try!
Some ways to connect with mentees:
Don't forget to mention your mentoring during the Personal Business Commitments (PBCs) review. It's a way of giving back to the community and investing in others!
Now we get to the networking part of this presentation, where you might find a mentor or connect with a mentee. You'll probably want pen and paper for this one, so you can write down people's names. Let's go around and introduce ourselves. Say your first and last name, then answer these questions: What do you need help with? What can you help people with? Then say your first and last name again, in case people missed your name the first time around. (Spell your name if you need to.) If you're listening to someone's introduction and something interests you, feel free to connect on this call or through Sametime!What do you think? What would you like to share with other people looking for mentors or mentees?
Over lunch, Archie and I talked about one of his business goals for this year. He wanted to work on his personal brand.
I asked him what he meant by his personal brand. "What would success look like?" I asked.
Archie said that he'd like to be known more for troubleshooting, and that he would consider himself successful if more project managers asked him to troubleshoot their projects - both technical and non-technical issues. He's been working at the company for 12 years, and he had plenty of war stories and lessons learned to share with me. He told me that his peers know about his skills, but he wanted to hear about more projects, expand the kinds of roles he took on projects, and go into projects with more authority and leverage.
Now that was a much more useful vision than "improve personal brand." We could work with that. It might not even have anything to do with wikis, blogs, or Twitter.
So: How can one build a reputation for project work?
We figured that the best ways to reach the people Archie was interested in would be through managers and resource deployment managers. There are a couple of ways to do that: e-mail and presentations.
In terms of e-mail, one of the best things Archie can do is to make sure that the results that he's getting turn up in the right people's e-mail inboxes. As it can sometimes be difficult to get recognition or documentation of results from busy project managers, I suggested that Archie write up the problems he solves, the results, and tips for avoiding such problems in the future. If he sends this e-mail to the project manager and to our manager, they can forward it to other people as needed - if they hear of a project that has a similar problem, if someone asks them who can help with a troubled project, and so on. It's important to keep one's manager up to date on the kinds of things one is good at or interested in, because managers talk to other managers and can refer you to opportunities.
In terms of presentations, Archie can summarize key tips from his experiences into a short presentation - maybe a top 10 list, or focused on a topic such as performance. This gives him plenty of opportunities to use and reuse the material. Speaking at a lunch-and-learn is one way to do it, and he'll get extra exposure from the invitations going around. Speaking at one of our internal education events will let him reach even more people. The presentation can be shared internally, included with newsletters, forwarded to other people.
What else would you recommend?
UPDATE: Fixed formatting. Thanks, Brock!
Two developers recently joined our team. Johnny has worked with Drupal before, and needs a little help getting used to Drupal 6 and Views 2. Elena is an IT architect who is new to both IBM and Drupal. She needs a lot more help getting started, because she doesn't know what things are called yet and she isn't yet accustomed to the Drupal way of doing things. For my part, I work on Workflow, node access, and other requirements that require deep Drupal hacking.
I'm learning to check on Elena more frequently and to help her break down tasks. Otherwise, she might get lost or stuck, because she might not yet know where things are or whether she's getting closer to an answer. I've made good progress on the things we've planned for this iteration, and I can invest the time into helping our new team members be more productive and learn more effectively.
Both Elena and Johnny have set up their debuggers in Eclipse, so they don't have to figure out the right places to insert
var_dumps. Instead, they can trace through the relevant pieces of code, learning more about the structures and the flow of Drupal websites along the way.
Although I occasionally struggle to explain things I take for granted, I enjoy helping someone who's new to an area. It helps me remember the things people need to learn. For example, Elena's work on surveys requires her to learn about nodes, getting values from the
$_REQUEST, loading nodes, working with CCK, altering forms, adding new form fields using the Form API, and using Drupal functions for links and text. We broke down the task into the following steps:
hook_form_alterto add some text to the form.
form_alterfor the case where you're editing the node.
We've managed our planning well, so I don't feel overcommitted or stretched with the additional mentoring I've taken on. The time is an investment that will pay off both in the short-term as well as the long-term. If I can slow down and write more, then the investment can benefit to other people too.
I like this. It's certainly much better than leaving developers to flounder and work things out on their own, and I learn a lot in the process of helping. Maybe that will be one of my specialties: projects where other people are learning a lot on the fly.
Isabelle's manager wanted her to get better at proactive communication. She's comfortable e-mailing people, but she has a hard time following up when people don't respond. Timezone differences between team members in Singapore and in the US compound delays. She reached out to me for advice, and I suggested a few things that might help:
1. Clear, dated requests. When asking for help or a response through e-mail, specify a target date instead of leaving it open-ended, and give a reason for that date if possible. This makes it easier for people to prioritize working on your task. (Don't always ask people to get back to you TODAY, though. It looks like you don't plan well.)
2. Clear, dated responses and priorities. If you're working with other people on some lower-priority tasks, those tasks might never be finished. Clarify the relative priority of a task with your manager: it might turn out to be higher-priority than you thought. If it really is a low-priority project, contact the people you need to collaborate with and get an estimate of when they might be able to work on their part of the project. Find out what other important projects they're working on, too. This will allow you to:
3. Status reports. They're good for your manager and for you. Keep track of where you are on projects: what your next actions are, what you're waiting for, and what you've accomplished. Share this with your manager frequently, so there are no surprises.
4. Concrete follow-ups. When you're waiting for a response, schedule a follow-up so that it doesn't slip through the cracks. Follow up by e-mail, and then move up to following up by phone or instant message if needed. I don't do this for all of my tasks, but I do this for tasks I "own," and it helps.
Concrete follow-up dates also help you write better status reports. Instead of reporting "Waiting for response", you can report "Waiting for response; will follow up on ____ by e-mail and _____ by phone." Clear follow-up plans make people feel more confident that the task won't be forgotten.
5. Tactful escalation. When people don't respond, sometimes you need to find other ways to get things going. Isabelle had learned how to cc:ing her manager so that her manager could stay updated, but she wasn't comfortable with cc:ing the other person's manager because it felt like escalation. If done tactfully, though, escalation can be a good tool.
How to escalate: Give people the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge that they might be busy working on priority projects. Send them a gentle reminder, cc:ing their manager. In the note, explain to the manager that you understand that the original contact may be busy or your request might be a better fit for someone on the team, and ask who might be the best person to talk to.
Hope that helps!
I remember reading a discussion topic about what it means to be an IBMer, and how people feel an emotional connection with the company even if they’re no longer employees.
David Singer retired from IBM a few months ago. We kept right on going with our mentoring chats anyway, and I’ve been learning a lot from both our adventures. A few days ago, a friend of ours—another IBMer in the UK—expressed appreciation for David’s thoughtfulness. David had reached out to him when he was down, and encouraged him at just the right time.
It’s wonderful that even after leaving the company, David Singer still cares. He jokes about it being an investment in IBM’s stock value, and maybe it is – maybe these human connections are part of what makes a company thrive.
Thank you again.