In any industry, as you look to move up the chain, or even just stay put without dropping back down it, there is a need to improve your knowledge of your specialist area. This is often referred to as up-skilling, and there are nearly as many paths to achieve it as there are people trying to do so.
A commonly espoused path to improving your skills is to find yourself a mentor to guide you in your learning. The idea behind it is that you pick and approach someone with stronger skills in your desired area, and somehow convince them to take you under their wing and show you the ropes. This all sounds peachy on paper, but once you pause and think “OK, so who am I going to choose? And how do I approach them? How do I persuade them to mentor me?”
These are all good questions, but they don’t really have any solid answers. Before I pick it apart in more detail, let me just say that whatever you might think, it’s not impossible. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. With that said, let’s see how badly we can pull the classic approach apart.
First things first: who do you choose? The answer to this will obviously depend completely on the industry you’re in, the circles you move in, the connections available to you and your own level. The lower your level of knowledge in the area you want mentoring is before you start, the more realistic you need to be about who you’re going to approach. If the primary exposure you’ve had to computers is Microsoft Office, then persuading Steve Wozniak or Linus Torvalds to mentor you as a programmer is a pretty high bar, and your chances of reaching it are seriously slim.
The trick here is to look at it not as a lift up, but a staircase or ladder; start with the bottom rung and go from there. What is often missed is that each rung often requires a different mentor. To go from ground level to the first rung, you’re going to have to go it alone – to get someone to help you, you have to show a willingness to help yourself. Do whatever you need to do to scramble up to that first rung; it’s going to involve hard graft, and very likely late nights with YouTube videos and textbooks, so be ready.
Once you reach the first rung, which is essentially a basic understanding of the target area, coupled with basic knowledge of how to use it, at this point you can start looking for a mentor. However, don’t stop what you’re doing in order to wait for the right person to come along; keep grafting at it while you look. What you are looking for now is someone with a solid understanding of the target area and a certain proficiency in applying it. Note, I’m not saying expert; you just don’t need input from that level yet even if you can get it.
You now need to carefully evaluate the people you work with. A colleague is the ideal first-level mentor as you are in close proximity, it’s easy to discuss things and get feedback and you already know the person. Take a close look at the people around you in a typical day; who among them has the skills you want to learn? If any of them do, you’re ready to tackle the second question, “How do I approach them?”. If not, time to take a close look at your career goals, your current job and whether it’s a good fit or if moving on would be more beneficial.
Another approach if nobody you work with has the knowledge you seek is to find friends who do. Again, while it’s likely that your circle of friends reflects your interests, it is also possible that nobody within it has the skills to assist you. This doesn’t mean that your attempt to learn something new is doomed, just that you need to put in a whole lot more hard graft to gain a foothold. We’ll look at some strategies I’ve used in the past for upskilling myself in this situation in a little while.
Assuming that right now, you’ve laid the groundwork, you’ve identified a suitable candidate to be your mentor, just how do you rope them into this? There are many ways to approach this, but I’d probably hedge away from just a big smile, bambi eyes, and a “will you be my mentor?” (Hey, it might work for you, but I don’t think I’d get far!). I would aim for the non-committal “I’ve been trying to figure something out, is there any chance you can take a look at it?” and work up from there based on response. This has probably been the most successful approach for me, and it’s one I’ve used quite a few times.
The other thing to bear in mind with having a specific mentor is that as your skills improve and you find yourself looking for a new mentor to help your progress further, at some point you’re going to find that you need to radically change the situation to move on. This can mean changing jobs, and at certain critical points even switching careers if your path diverges too far from where you are.
You will need to carefully gauge it as you go as to how much you can lean on each person, how often, and how to manage it, as not everyone will be particularly into the role of mentor. As you progress and find yourself helping and mentoring others, you’ll again find that it’s easier sometimes than others, and it can (it shouldn’t, but it can) depend heavily on your workload, stress levels, personal feelings, even your mood.
In summary, here’s an approach to try:
- Reflect on what’s working and what’s not
- Identify areas where you are making a difference
- Identify areas where you think you can make a difference
- Ask your managers which areas you can make a difference in