June 13, 2020.
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:
Here’s what I pulled together.
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:
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:
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.