The layers of mentorship and coaching
I’m right in the middle of developing different layers to understand mentorship and coaching. I’ll first share my previous understanding before explaining the layer I’ve added over time.
In the past, mentorship involved hand-holding when someone didn’t know the destination for different paths. Similar to painting a picture or a map, mentoring involved actions such as:
From my perspective, people who fell into this category included:
- Connecting and networking with people
- Providing opportunities from scratch
- Defining steps in a career path
- Guiding towards the right direction
- People seeking a career change
- People switching industries
On the other hand, coaching involved someone who was already walking on a path and had momentum. Instead of creating a map, you’re now standing along the path coachees already have in their minds. Like training for a marathon, coaching helps overcome hurdles while acting as a cheerleader along the way. Practically, this involved actions such as:
- Asking questions
- Providing opportunities to meet their goals
- More frequently scheduled meetings
- Giving feedback on their plan of action
I’ve come across more structured mentorship programs that feel similar to coaching. I’ve volunteered with a mentorship program that pairs mentors from America with undergrads from Africa. Many of these individuals are highly intrinsically motivated and want someone to tell them exactly what to expect when interviewing with American companies. I’ve found that in structured mentorship, people often start from a similar place to that of people in unstructured mentorship, but have a more defined goal in mind. A structured mentorship program is more targeted and lasts for 3-6 months.
As for holistic coaching, I'll go over the following items:
When assessing my approach for coaching, I always start with a list of questions to develop context around my coachee. I ask myself questions like:
- How much can the person tolerate risk?
- How much can I push them?
- Do they have anxiety?
- What other stressors are going on in their life?
- What’s their background? College? Bootcamp?
The answers to these questions then dictate how I coach. I want to understand their circumstances to have a holistic approach to coaching.
The Journey & Goals
I’ve come across different coaching methods amongst colleagues, depending on the scenario.
For holistic coaching, people are encouraged to process their experience to work towards their goals. I make it an explicit point to have the people I coach be candid in their conversations about their self-assessment. The journey is important when it comes to how you meet your goals. Different individuals have different learning styles, so having a better understanding of their learning cadence changes how coaching should progress. Ask for honest answers around:
- How long do you think it would take to reach your goals?
- How many hours a week can you dedicate to your goals?
- How hard can you push yourself each week?
For strategic coaching, the focus is around discrete steps to meet goals, with less of a focus around how they struggle through each step. In a professional environment, strategic coaching focuses more on the product we’re in charge of and prioritizes the project running smoothly. For example, with senior engineers that show leadership skills, I would ask them to create opportunities for junior developers to upskill and learn skills pertinent to the product.
As for scheduling coaching sessions, I allocate 30 minutes every other week with a caveat to message to meet as needed. For engineers that can tolerate more, I’ll schedule a meeting every week.
Win-win coaching: Rewarding moments
The number of rewarding moments from coaching can feel unbalanced with the workload and the daily tasks as a manager, but these moments fostered my love for coaching engineers.
One of my earliest wins at Github involved an internal coworker seeking a career transition into engineering. As the application window came to a close, they faced strong imposter syndrome. I scheduled a call with them to have an objective conversation around their fears and doubts while encouraging them about expectations for junior engineers. I helped set the tone and paint a picture of the role they were applying for to relieve some of their doubts around qualification. Long story short, they ended up applying and successfully switching positions.
While there are less frequent wins, such as seeing your coachee become promoted, other wins occur on a day-to-day basis. For example, I coached an engineer who challenged themselves to work on their leadership skills by learning to speak out more and improve their communication skills. I noticed them speak up more in meetings and become more assertive in their opinions. Seeing people’s efforts in reaching their goals through a behind-the-scenes lens makes coaching a rewarding experience.
Coaching tips and tricks: Setting expectations and finding balance
For new or experienced engineering managers coaching their engineers, I recommend you find out the performance expectations across the larger organization for varying levels of engineers. By becoming familiar with expectations and performance outside of your team, you’ll better understand the bigger picture across your company. From there, you’ll have a better understanding of how to focus your coaching efforts towards promotion and provide your coachee with specific areas of improvement to build a better case.
I also recommend striking a healthy balance between giving your coachee information that’s most useful for them to know while being as transparent as possible. It’s about finding an equilibrium between growing your coachee’s skills while building a relationship to understand how much they can handle.
No matter where you’re at in your career, coaching helps advance your career while helping others achieve their goals. Personally, I started my story as a TA helping people in labs. In bootcamp, I would stay after to help people who were struggling. As I became a developer, I would go to different coding groups and meet people earlier in the developer journey. I offered coding sessions, resume prep and volunteered for a group called “Women Who Code” in Austin.
I initially joined Github because they had a job posting for an implementation engineer who teaches and holds workshops for engineering teams. I taught engineers how to build automations and get started on Github. All of those experiences led me to start thinking about management. I connected the dots between my experiences and the responsibilities of an engineering manager.
I have a passion for coaching underrepresented people who want to land their first job or get promoted, and I’m certainly not alone. There's so much support on social media groups for underrepresented groups. I want to encourage people to provide 30 minutes of their time to share a bit of their journey, outline the steps needed to reach their goals, and provide context around challenges throughout their journey. For people seeking a coach or mentor, it never hurts to ask. Many random strangers are willing to help.