Mentoring from privilege.

June 13, 2020. Filed under mentorship 1

A couple weeks ago, Sean Page tweeted to match engineering and product manager mentors with BIPOC mentees. I’m amazed at the ability of the internet to create these sort of special congregations, and raised my hand. A good number of folks reached out asking if I’d mentor them, and as I started trying to respond to them, I realized I needed to spend more time trying to understand a few core questions:

  1. How can I be a valuable mentor?
  2. How can I mentor from a position of privilege without causing harm?

Here’s what I pulled together.

How can mentorship be valuable?

Before talking about mentorship, I think it’s always helpful to consider Lara Hogan’s distinction between sponsorship and mentorship which she explores in What Does Sponsorship Look Like?, as well as her Mentoring + Sponsoring talk. Lara defines mentorship as “Giving advice, based on your experience,” whereas sponsorship is taking an active role in helping someone: recommending them for a role, pushing for their promotion, and so on.

It’s clear that sponsorship is more impactful than mentorship, but here I specifically wanted to focus on mentorship on the theory that it has the potential to be more scalable, as well as an effective entry pathway to sponsorship if the mentorship relationship goes well.

Although I’ve slowly eased into mentoring over the past few years, I’ve never been particularly comfortable in the mentor role, in part because it was only recently that I’ve figured out how to work with mentors myself. Because of that, I also wanted to look around for general resources on how to mentor well, particularly appreciating the advice from First Round Review’s How to Be a Career-Changing Mentor.

The advice that felt most effective to me was:

  • Being explicit about areas where you’re able to give mentorship, along with where you’re not able to give mentorship. I’ve written mine up in Ways I’m available to help.
  • Coach mentees on how to be effective mentees. In particular, I think this is helping folks get good at bringing specific, narrow questions that are answerable.
  • Be thoughtful about when coaching techniques, especially asking good questions, might be more appropriate.
  • Whenever possible, tell stories that folks can draw their own conclusion from rather than giving explicit advice.
  • Don’t give advice about things you don’t know about.
  • Be kind, but also unfailingly honest.

How do you avoid harm?

Cate Huston says that “Mentors give you perspective. Sponsors give you opportunities,” which is a wonderful description, and leads me to the second question I wanted to spend time considering: how can I, as someone with considerable privilege, mentor folks without that privilege, when my perspective is deeply shaped by my privilege?

Many mentees are coached to start their mentorship relationship by asking for their mentor’s personal story, but, wow is my story not applicable for most folks. I think there are aspects of my story that could be reproduced successfully, but that reproducing most aspects would be more likely to set folks up for frustration than success.

What I think I can do to maximize help and minimize harm is:

  • Invest into understanding my privilege.
  • Do not give advice about things I don’t know about, for example I don’t have a helpful perspective on breaking into the technology industry and decline to give advice on it. In these cases, offer alternative avenues for mentorship/learning when possible.
  • Ground my stories in the context of my privilege as opposed to generalizing them as “how things work.”
  • Explicitly call out behaviors or experiences that I understand to have hinged heavily on privilege and would be risky if performed with less privilege.
  • Incorporate counterpoint stories from peers and coworkers with different degrees of privilege and who have had different experiences.

Putting together these notes has been very helpful for me, but this is an area that I feel like I'm still very early in my understanding. I'm grateful for any additions or suggestions from folks on how to be a better mentor, particularly in the context of mentoring from a position of privilege.