Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Being a Mentee

A good mentor is one of those things that's often listed as a key ingredient in success. It can let you shortcut long and potentially painful learning by teaching you the lessons of someone who, since they're successful, has presumably learned the right lessons. Observing a mentor, and asking the right questions, gives you potently distilled experience.

I've learned from a lot of people, but I've only had a true mentor/mentee relationship with a few. It's not always a relationship that comes naturally, and I've had to learn to be a better mentee. I've just started with a new PM mentor, and it's gotten me thinking about things I wish I had known since my first:

Know what you want to learn: be specific. Don't look for a "life mentor", or even a "business mentor". Know that you want to learn leadership and influence, or to write and communicate clearly, or how to manage a group, or how to differentiate against competitors. But keep an open mind: one thing your mentor may teach you is what you really ought to be learning.

Pick the right mentor: look for a few key characteristics. They should be successful, meaning they've gotten where you want to go, using what you want to learn. They should also be willing to answer questions. Ideally, look for someone you can observe, rather than only meeting at set times. And, while not necessary, it certainly helps if you get along.

Drive the relationship: learn actively, not passively. Ask questions, and invite feedback. Always look for what you can do or ask that will tease out important lessons from your mentor's actions and experience.

Assume they're right: at least initially, anyway. This was a hard-earned lesson for me. If your mentor does something that seems odd, don't assume they're wrong. Instead, assume they know what they're doing, and try to figure out what you're missing. Remember that you chose this person precisely because they're successful, so don't assume you know better.

My Ph.D. advisor really drove this lesson home. He is a great researcher, and I was learning to do research. Sometimes, he would suggest ideas I just knew were wrong. Being strong-willed, I would push back. Tensions often rose. Yet time after time, in retrospect, I found his ideas worked better in our papers. I finally realized that while I measured ideas only on technical merit, he also considered their conceptual cleanliness, how well they would sell in a paper, current trends in the field, conversations with other professors, etc, etc. Instead of assuming I was right, I should have assumed he was right, and tried to figure out why.

Any other lessons I should take into this new mentorship?

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