Mentoring is all about growth and learning. Growth conversations are best if supported with goals, direction or even a plan. But how do you get to having a plan?
Engineer learning and development is a big ol’ topic. In this post, I’ll focus on a few patterns, tools and techniques that help one-on-one mentoring.
One size does not fit all
Let’s begin with a little broad general advice: Personal development and skill acquisition is a spectrum.
Beginners need structure and direction. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Experts need choice, freedom and feedback. They often know what good looks like and likely have developed some acquisition techniques. They will have gaps and blind spots - that's where you come in.
Those that fall in between need enough structure to not get lost, sometimes leaning into the meta-skills of learning and generalizing. They also need to develop the ability to be self-directed.
My first recommendation is to know where folks are and act accordingly.
Beginners/ juniors should have a clear paved path to follow.
Journey-folks should have several paths to choose from and guidance and checks in place to help them pick well, steer and achieve.
As people develop towards Expert, they should be able to choose and steer. Mentoring can operate more like partnering or peer-to-peer chats. Guidance, structure and checks become important again when they become stretched or are working in new areas.
Progression Frameworks and Career Ladders
Skills ladders and progression frameworks are a great way to have a scaled-up impact on Engineer progression. Many companies have something like them and they can be very useful for levelling, career advancement and goal planning. I've found these can be great tools to help folk identify key goals and next steps.
If a progression framework is not the right thing, consider matching role breakdowns that call out key skills and behaviours.
Recommendation: use these in conversation, to guide your mentee to examine and increase their expertise, where it is low.
Some folks focus on people, not skills. They can see someone who is good, who they want to be like. This can be used in conversation and processes to identify traits and skills that can be acquired
Consider using these questions to build awareness and some goals
Who do you want to be like and why?
What makes them ace?
What aspects are important to the role they do well?
How could you get there?
Recommendation: use this in conversation when someone knows who, not what they want to be.
Taking on a new challenge
When a mentee is taking on a new challenge. A good goal-growth conversation could be one like the following
To achieve this, what would good need to look like?
What skills do you have? And how do you know this?
What skills do you need? And which do you need first?
How will you know you are winning?
Recommendation: use this with people who have awareness of what they can and have done.
Consider a more feedback-based approach if they lack key awareness or have found themselves caught by overconfidence.
Identifying goals that get done
All the above options can generate goals and at least the initial steps to achieve them.
Once you have found some potential objectives, your mentee needs to have the opportunity to see, to act and to learn. Together you should look for what goals align with the opportunities available, or talk about where those might be found.
Once you both have a clear idea of the right goals, you are going to want to plan, delegate and iterate. Using your mentor conversations to check-in, learn, adjust and replan.
I've found that selecting 3-4 key goals and collaborating on the info in the sheet below helped ownership and focused the conversation in the right places as we kept meeting.
Recommendation: put the goals into a format that your mentee can own and update; and one you both can talk around.
Needs + Opportunity + Motivation
Needs + opportunity + motivation = Useful, actionable objectives
Working with your mentees to find what they need to do and how they might practice gets you most of the way there. the mentee's alignment and ownership, together with your chats and expertise can bring together the will and way power needed to motivate your mentee even in the trickiest areas.