Poornima Vijayashanker

How to Get Started as a Mentor


All this month, Karen Catlin and I have been digging into the theme of mentoring. We started out by sharing the debut Build episode on why some people are reluctant to seek mentoring, and last week we talked about how to approach mentors, set expectations, and thank them.

In today’s final episode on mentoring for this month, we’re going to talk about what you can do to become an effective mentor yourself.

We understand that you might be reluctant to be a mentor for a number of reasons: you don’t have the time, you don’t feel qualified, or you feel like your experiences may not relate.

Don’t worry Karen and me have you covered! Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • how mentoring is a two-way street benefiting both the mentor and mentee;
  • why you don’t need to have the same experience or perspective as your mentee;
  • who should be holding the mentee accountable;
  • what to do when you just don’t have time, but still want to help someone who approaches you; and
  • what to do when someone brings you a deeply personal problem.

Know someone you think would be a great mentor? Please share this episode with them!

Watch the episode on YouTube!

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

How to Get Started as a Mentor Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: In the previous two segments, I’ve been talking to Karen Catlin, who is an advocate for Women in Tech, a leadership coach, and my co-author of our book, Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking. Karen and I have been digging into the importance of mentorship. We started out by talking about why you might be reluctant to seeking a mentor. Then, we talked about how you can effectively establish the relationship. If you’ve missed either of those segments, I highly recommend you check out the links below this video. In this final segment, we’re gonna talk about how you can become an effective mentor yourself.

Welcome back to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. Each Build episode consists of a series of conversations I have with innovators. Together, we debunk myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies, and your career. Now, I know at the beginning, Karen, you mentioned how you loved mentoring, because you get to learn a lot. I feel the same way. I think I actually learn more than maybe my mentees do and that’s why I love doing it. Let’s talk about some of the benefits that you’re gonna experience should you choose to mentor.

Mentoring is a two-way street that benefits both the mentor and mentee

Karen Catlin: Sure, yes. It’s definitely a two-way street. You may not know what you’re gonna be learning from a mentee, but getting together, hearing about what’s going on, the questions they ask, you are going to get insight into how you can benefit your career. You might just get a good, broad perspective of what’s going on around your company or your industry. As I mentioned, maybe some great ideas for podcasts that I could listen to, or books I could read, or productivity apps I could use. I don’t even know what’s it gonna be, but I always pick up something when I talk to a mentee.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I feel like it’s a great way to stay relevant. Especially if some of us are a little bit older and maybe we’re not as in the know.

Karen Catlin: OK. OK. So one time I was talking to someone and they said, “TLDR.” This was a few years ago to my credit, but I’m like, “TLDR, what’s that mean?” So, I asked and they said, “Oh, just too long, didn’t read.” I’m like, “Oh, OK.” Just now, I am able to just like, weave that into conversations and all of a sudden I seem really relevant.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Totally. So you can speak the lingo.

Karen Catlin: Exactly.

Why a mentor doesn’t need to have the exact same experience or perspective as their mentee

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now, when you were at Adobe, did you just mentor women or do you also mentor men as well?

Karen Catlin: Sure. As a senior woman at the company, I definitely was approached by a lot of woman for mentoring. Men approached me, too. I did definitely mentor both genders. I think it’s important for a mentee to get advice from people who don’t look like them, whether that is because of your gender, or your life experience, your…of other things that you’re bringing to the company, bringing to the table. It’s important for a mentee to get advice from people who aren’t like them, because it’s gonna broaden the set of advice that they’re going to get, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Karen Catlin: Likewise, because mentoring is a two-way street, it’s good for mentors to mentor people who don’t look like them too, because, that is going to allow them to learn, get different perspectives, and all of that. I think everything is ups for grabs.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What about people who may worry that they don’t have the same experience, or perspective, and so, they might not feel credible sharing their life experience with a mentee?

Karen Catlin: Oh my gosh. Don’t overthink it. That’s my advice for mentors here. The mentee has approached you because they respect you and they want to learn from you. You don’t have to worry about, am I going to be able to provide just the right piece of experience or advice. Don’t worry about it, just have a conversation, share stories, share your experience, it’s gonna make a difference to the mentee.

What to do when you don’t have time to mentor someone

Poornima Vijayashanker: I wanna talk about a couple of other issues that I see come up a lot when I recommend people mentor and they’re resistant to. The first is time. “I’m just so busy, I have kids, I have a family, I have other obligations, I just don’t have the time to be somebody’s mentor.”

Karen Catlin: Yeah. Yeah. I get that. Because, we are all very busy. That said, if someone approaches you because they wanna get your advice, and they haven’t time-boxed it following my advice from an earlier segment here. Ask them, what are you really asking for here? Can we get together and maybe, you know, if you’re busy, you might say, “Can we get together for a 30-minute phone call?” for example. Ask yourself, “Do I have time maybe for a 30-minute phone call?”

Chances are, you have some small segment of time that you could offer to a mentee and so, you can be responsible for saying, “Well, this is what I can give you and this is all I’ve got right now.” If you’re really too busy, you might just say, “The next two months I am just super busy on this project, can you ping me in three months’ time, and I’ll bet I’ll have some time for you then.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I think that’s good. I think it’s good to give people that kinda realistic picture. One thing I like to do—actually, two things I like to do—if somebody comes to me and I know they have that good directive question, like, I got this one recently, “How do you self-publish?” Well, I’ve already written two posts, like, pretty meaty ones. I tell them, “Read these posts and then, if you have any other questions, shoot me an email, I’m traveling a lot, I’ll be sure to respond to you via email.”

Trying to find a 30-minute time spot across time zones, is just not gonna work for both of us. I think that’s great. The other thing I say is, and you do this because you speak at a lot of events, I say, “I’m gonna be at this event, why don’t we just meet there and when I’m in between sessions, would be great to come out and have a chat with you.” I think finding those opportunities, you can get more flexible.

Karen Catlin: Yeah and,doing what you can to just help the person, whether that is with your actual mentoring or making a recommendation for another mentor.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. That’s a good one.

Karen Catlin: I had times, yeah, over my career, where really my mentoring dance card was just full. I really, really couldn’t take on anymore mentees. When those things happen and someone approached me for mentoring, I would explain, my mentoring dance card is full. What are you really looking for from a mentor? And then I might recommend that they reach out to someone else at my company. Right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep.

Karen Catlin: Help them, move them forward in some way.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Definitely. I know another hurdle is relevancy. Again, kind of, oh, you know, the mentee might say, “I’m looking for somebody in data science.” I might say, “I don’t know anything about data science, I’m just a front-end engineer or I’m a designer, why are you approaching me?” Right? It doesn’t seem like my work is exactly relevant. I don’t know if this is a good thing.

Karen Catlin: Yeah. It’s so funny. Just a couple days ago, a mentor, excuse me, a mentee was reaching out to me and asking, “Hey Karen, I am thinking about putting on a women’s only hackathon and I’d like to get your advice about how to do this.” I had to tell her, “Well actually, I have very little experience with hackathons, even though I’m an advocate for Women in Tech. I think this is a great idea, but I don’t have direct relevant experience to share with you. However, I do know about this one tech company who has run a women’s only hackathon.” I mention the name of the company, she said, “Oh, I know people who work there, I’ll reach out to my network there to find out little bit more.” Again, this notion that I pushed her forward, I helped her out without really being able to answer her direct question, whether that was on data science or a hackathon.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: This notion, I’ve done with so many mentees, this notion of encouraging them to think about their network. Who else could they tap to get that specific experience or advice they’re looking for?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Part of your mentorship is also helping them see what they already got, see the resources that they have at their disposal.

Karen Catlin: Exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s not all about you having to do the work.

Karen Catlin: Exactly.

Who need to hold a mentee accountable

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. That’s great. What about accountability? A lot of times people say, “How can I hold my mentee accountable? Make sure they’re hitting milestones. Make sure that they are successful?”

Karen Catlin: Yeah. Gosh. Maybe I should be doing a better job at this. I really feel that as a mentor, my job is not to take any action items from the meeting, you know, it’s to provide my experience, my advice, my thoughts. But, really, I’m expecting the mentee to be taking notes, to be figuring out what they’re gonna do next, and to be making progress. I don’t take any of that on me, but maybe I should be, I don’t know how to help them. We all benefit from having accountability partners. It’s just that, as a mentor, I’m already giving a lot of my time, I don’t feel I need to be doing that as well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Maybe that’s something more a sponsor would do or even a coach, if you hire them?

Karen Catlin: Yeah. A coach would definitely do that for you. Otherwise, maybe it is a buddy, or a friend, or a colleague that you might reach out to, in addition to having the mentor, you have an accountability partner, who helps make sure you’re making the progress you want to make.

What to do as a mentor when someone brings you a deeply personal problem

Poornima Vijayashanker: I’ve had this happen a number of times, where somebody that I mentored, I see very quickly that it is not just about getting that promotion, or improving a particular thing about their career, there’s some other stuff going on. It might be a personal issue, and so, how would you recommend answering that as the mentor?

Karen Catlin: Yeah. Mentors and coaches, frankly, we’re not therapists. We’re not trained in helping people through some deep personal issues. I remember a situation where someone had some things going on with, I think it was a teenage child, and, even though I’m a mom of teenagers, I still felt that this was something that I did not feel qualified or really feel right about providing guidance. Happy to share what I’ve done as a parent in different situations, but that’s not getting to the point of providing therapy, so I’ve really had to sort of redirect the conversation and stay away from it, frankly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Set some clear boundaries and make sure that they understand that.

Karen Catlin: I’m not a therapist.

What are male allies and how to become one

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. That’s fair. I wanna go back to one of the earlier things that we had talked about around coaching people that may not look like you and I know as an advocate for Women Tech, one of things that you do is coach men to become better allies for women. Start by telling me, what exactly is a male ally?

Karen Catlin: Yeah. So, an ally is anyone who is in the majority and really has a point of privilege as a result. Maybe a little bit of power that other people don’t have, because they’re not in the majority. In tech, it’s typically white men who have the position of power, they’re the majority. So, it’s an important thing for them to realize that they have this role to fill as an ally for women or anyone who’s underrepresented in tech.

They have a role to play to help those people be successful, to feel that they can be…that they’re welcome somewhere, that they can be included, that they can grow their career and have an impact there. A male ally, that’s what I look to them to do, is to make their environments, their teams, their company culture, more welcoming and inclusive to people who don’t look like them.

Poornima Vijayashanker: How do you help men to become male allies?

Karen Catlin: Yes. I believe there are everyday, simple actions that men can take to make their environments more welcoming and inclusive. For example, and this is something that I think that pretty much every woman who’s professional, or maybe working—every woman working in tech, I’ll go as far as to say that, has had this experience, where they have been talking in a meeting and some man with deeper vocal chords and a louder voice, just interrupts them and sort of steers the conversation in a different direction.

There’s a phrase for it, “manterrupting.” We’ve heard that before. What can a male ally do when they witness that behavior when they’re sitting across the table and seeing it going on? They can say something with their deep, strong vocal chords, “Hey, I was actually interested to hear what Anna had to say, let’s bring the conversation back to her.” That’s an example of an everyday action a man can take to be an ally for women in that meeting.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes.

Karen Catlin: Another example, might be this whole idea-hijacking, I like to call it. Again, I think so many of us have had the experience where we have said something brilliant, awesome, in a meeting, and it kinda fell on deaf ears at the time, and then maybe a couple minutes later in the meeting, someone else says the same brilliant thing—often it’s a man, only because there’s gonna be so many men in these meetings.

What’s a male ally to do in that situation when they notice an idea has been hijacked by someone else? They can say something simple, like, “Yeah, I really like that idea, and when Jen said it a few minutes ago, she phrased it this way. I like the way you’ve built on it,” or something like that. Another every day action a man can take to help the women and underrepresented minorities be successful.

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s great that you are coaching men to have these everyday actions that are important and impactful. You have any others that you would like to share?

Karen Catlin: Oh, sure. Here’s another space, I’ll call it—forget about meetings, let’s move on from meetings. We all need to have networks to be successful, to hear about opportunities, to hire from, right? When we’re trying to fill roles at our company or to find jobs if we’re looking for jobs. If we let our networks grow naturally and organically, chances are, we’re gonna have networks of people who are just like us. “Just like me” networks. We enjoy the same hobbies, we went to the same school, we enjoy doing and talking about the same things, right? That’s just human nature to reach out to people we enjoy spending time with, that’s our network.

I think we have a role to play, especially if we’re a male ally, but we should really be looking to diversify our network, so that our networks aren’t just like us and that they’re filled with people who are of different backgrounds, different experiences, just went to different schools, worked at different companies and so forth. For men, specifically, I challenge them, if they go to some networking event, or a Friday afternoon beer bash or something, go introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t look like you. You can define that however you want, but someone who doesn’t look like you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Maybe shorter than you.

Karen Catlin: Maybe shorter, yes. Darker skin, gender, whatever it is. Say hello, get to know them a little bit and see if there isn’t something that you can either learn from them or that you can do for them as a result. Just getting to know them a little bit. That challenge, I think, is important and I try to embrace it, too. When I go to a networking event, I tend to like to look for the women that I wanna meet and reach out to them. It’s easier for me to have those conversations. It’s a little bit more intimidating for me to go up to a young man in a hoodie and introduce myself and start a conversation. I try to do that myself, because I think it’s important for me to diversify my network. It’s good advice for not just male allies, but probably for all of us.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep. Well, thank you so much Karen. This has been a lot of fun and I’m sure the audience is gonna get a lot out of this. Why don’t you let us know how we can get in touch with you.

Karen Catlin: Sure. You can get in touch with me on my website, there’s a contact page and that is karencatlin.com. If you want more everyday actions you can take to support diversity, inclusion, create a welcoming environment at your company, check out the Twitter handle @betterallies.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wonderful. Thank you. We’ll be sure to share the links below the video. That’s it for our episode on mentorship. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode. If you’ve enjoyed this segment, then please be sure to share it with your friends and your colleagues. And finally, a special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker. Ciao for now.

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