The Hardest Part of Mentoring is Knowing What and When to Share

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I’ve written about mentoring a bunch before , so you know I’m a fan of it. But, there’s another aspect that has been bothering me lately. The questions are simple:

When do I share? What do I share?

What Do I Share?

I decided to start with the easier one: what do I share? What do you share, what could you share, what is sharing and mentoring versus spoon-feeding?

I think the biggest thing we want to concentrate on when doing programming mentoring is the safety net. It’s not bad if the less experienced programmer makes mistakes. That, after all, is most likely how we’ve learned. We just want to be that safety net. Don’t let them make too many mistakes or become too frustrated (a little frustration can lead to productivity and dedication).

So, we want to make sure we share things that will help them learn, not necessarily answer the question directly for them. For example, I might not necessarily give you the right answer, but I will help you figure out what to research, what to Google. I might share my concerns, but I won’t necessarily give my opinion one way or the other.

The idea of mentoring is to help someone build themselves up in their own way, not just create a mini-you. So, it can be difficult to realize, you shouldn’t be sharing everything you know, just things that will help them reach their own conclusions.

When Do I Share?

I kind of hit on some of this already, but the goal is to help the less experienced person learn. When do you share? Well, it depends, but you should share slightly after they need it, in my opinion. I think people learn best by having a little frustration, a few failures. Then, you can share a better path.

It’s important to realize that the role of the mentor is to step in when asked, most of the time. True, you might need to jump in to stop a catastrophe, but your goal should be to step in when asked. You might see someone going a crazy direction and want to speak up. Just let them go, wait till they ask, and maybe add a few pointers, a few nudges so they go the right way.

Why We Don’t Just Tell Them the Right Way

Believe it or not, we don’t want mini-me running around. It’s cool to see that we’ve made a positive impact on someone, but we need to make sure we don’t teach and mentor someone like it’s the only way. It isn’t. We want people to stay unique, to generally move in the right direction, but not always on the same path. Some of those weird exits, those distractions, those divergent people are what bring in new thoughts and ideas.

The best thing about allowing some freedom in the mentoring relationship is that you’ll constantly get challenged, too. If you force someone to follow your footsteps, you don’t have to spend any time revalidating and reframing your own conclusions. And guess what - we all are wrong sometimes. Mentors can be wrong - so the fact that we allow our less experienced colleagues to “wander about” is actually a favor for us as well. It sharpens, hones our skills. And, from time to time, they might just inadvertently help you develop a new view point as well.

So, just remember this I guess. Mentoring is great, but with restraint. A mentor doesn’t give away the farm, they don’t heavy hand it, they’re just there as safety nets, to step in slightly later than you might imagine.

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