Mentoring’s for life (not just for uni)

Written for Creative Review—June 14, 2021
        It’s important to be humble as a designer. Pretty soon after leaving the security of university, you realise that the learning doesn’t end there. It’s probably what keeps the job so interesting. There will always be a new team, client or technology to learn from.

But there’s an untapped resource of learning in the creative industry that accounts for all the biggest lessons and turning points in my career. And the premise is simple – be a mentor, and be mentored. From now until the day you hang up your Moleskine.

While a good boss is important, it’s naïve to expect to feel supported by them all the time. Particularly in larger teams when you’re competing with others for that energy. When you have a mentor, there’s someone else to back you. That feeling of advocation is powerful. Taking a network approach to your support takes the pressure off finding that elusive perfect boss.

That’s not to say all the benefits fall to the mentee — I’ve learnt much more sat on the opposite side of the table. Mentoring adds an incredibly rich perspective to your work (and life) that often goes under-celebrated.

Where do you find one?

The definition of mentorship is elusive. While they come in many guises, the best interpretation I’ve found is a professional friendship. Not a ‘work bestie’ or a colleague you’re happy to spill the tea with. Someone outside your studio who you can talk candidly to. Whether that’s about what happens during inbox hours or your plans for that career level up.

When looking for a mentor, the simplest answer is right under your nose. When you strip away the old school image of likely candidates (picture a wizened creative director, recently retired and making screenprints from a cabin in the Cotswolds), odds are there’s already someone brilliant in your life. You just need to shake off some of the misconceptions first – starting with the idea you should look inside your own industry.

I cannot stress enough how untrue this is. The world is richer when we cross-pollinate. One of my brilliant mentors was not a designer, or in a creative field — she was someone who managed a team and a roster of clients in tandem. Plenty of common ground for us to launch off. Just as we strive to diversify our teams and work with people who think differently, apply the same approach to your mentor candidates.

Ask anyone whose opinion you value. Whether they’re past colleagues, old lecturers, family or friends … even ask Design Twitter (it’s about time it came in useful). You absolutely can cold email people you admire. Be upfront about your ask, if they don’t have time, you’ve flattered them and made a connection.

Ready to be a mentor? You don’t need to have a Yoda level of wisdom. If you feel like you have something to give back, then the same advice applies. Offer. Offer your help far and wide, whether through your own channels or through the great wealth of schemes trying to make those matches. There are tons out there hunting for diversity on the mentor circuit. You can be specific about your offering too – it could be one skill you wish you saw more regularly on the studio floor or supporting an under-represented group in the industry.

What makes it work?

Experience has taught me that a little bit of housekeeping goes a long way. To keep the friendship professional, you need structure. It’s a work commitment so you should both make time for it in the work day. By meeting during shop hours, it reinforces its role in your professional development. Tell your leadership and put it in your calendar for all the studio to see.

The first session is the most formal of them all. Get straight in with the heavy lifting questions like what are we trying to achieve. Or even better, send these questions over before the session and kick off with the answers. What can we do now, tomorrow and in six months to work towards those goals?

Set expectations and stick to them. To be a mentee and not show up is unforgivable, but when your mentor makes you feel like a burden, the whole relationship unravels. If it’s an hour a month, make that a priority.

How can I be the best mentee/mentor?

The best mentees come prepared. Preparation is one of those boring, underrated power-ups in mentoring. Whether it’s a plan for today’s meeting, an anecdote to get insight on or a list of burning questions scribbled at the back of their notebook.

Don’t just be there, be present. On both sides of the table, distractions should be at zero. You could go as far as banning laptops for note-taking (I also hate eating during meetings but that might just be a personal fear of tandem navigating sourdough and existential questions).

This takes me to the best advice I ever had as a mentor. Always ask yourself, why are you talking? Your job is to listen. “Why do you think that is?” “Now you’ve retold it, do you have any new reflections?” Aim for a 90/10 (mentee/mentor) conversation ratio.

“The role of the mentor is to make you reflect, not to give you advice or answers. Helping you ask the right questions,” says Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne.

It’s not our job as mentors to give answers. We deal in options and scenarios. Anecdotes at a push. I asked my mentor if I should move to Australia and quite rightly she gave me a 10-second silence.

You’ve got to keep momentum. Which can be challenging over a year with natural ebbs and flows. Every session should end with action. Set mini-goals that keep your mentee accountable, and helps them prioritise time for self-development every month. Setting small tasks helps build towards bigger time investments like redoing a portfolio or writing a memoir.

Ultimately, you get out what you put in. If ever the mentorship is flailing, look at what you can do to fan the flames.

Why is it so good?

Amongst the countless mentee benefits, there are some compelling hidden ones. Mentoring can help you see the big picture at a stage in your career where the focus is much narrower. Rather than thinking about today’s meetings or the next impending deadline, it shuffles your priorities to make sure you’re top of the list. This is about your aspirations, rather than those of your studio.

And you can address those hairy, audacious ambitions…. Want to move into art curation in NYC? Or join the Disney Imagineers in Shanghai? Mentorships can help you tap into networks that might get you there.

Now the bit that gets me waxing lyrical in the pub. What makes being a mentor so good?!

Practically, all the skills required to be a good mentor are found in great design leadership. Finding more joy in others succeeding than yourself. The ability to truly listen and allow your team to feel heard. Identifying what makes someone tick, then figuring out how they can amplify it, or create an environment that nurtures it.

You can take the most frustrating, painful experiences from your career and turn them into lessons. Flip negatives into positives. You can also take some of the habits or patterns you’ve spotted in the industry and try to change them.

There’s constant inspiration from younger (more) talented people. My mentees are always mentioning new programmes or references I haven’t heard of. It’s the easiest, best way to stay relevant.

In case all that isn’t enough to persuade you, this, from Mickos, sums it up: “To be a mentor makes you a more understanding human being. It keeps your mind young and your skills fresh. Successful people who don’t start to mentor others will over time lose touch with their own excellence. Mentoring someone connects you back to the original you who became so excellent.”

Or as Edith Piaf put it: “You should remember to send the elevator back down.”

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