Mentorship is a 2-way street: How to find a mentor that aligns with your goals & values
7 tips on creating a powerful mentor/mentee connection.
By Aleenah Ansari, Contributor
As a queer Pakistani woman in tech, I often struggle to find people who look like me. I also believe that you can’t be what you can’t see, which is why I’m always open to setting up 1:1s with Women of Color in tech, media, and business. During our conversations, I hope to be a source of representation for them, all while encouraging them to bring their authentic selves to work and find ways to be creative, inspired, and in community with people who look like them. However, as a mentor, I don’t always know if I’m making a difference — until recently.
Recently, one of my mentees was accepted into the Access_&Design Program, a fellowship that supports Black, Latinx, and Indigenous emerging designers who are committed to empowering their communities. I decided to check out my mentee’s website to learn more, and I found a blog post titled, "How I found my mentor."
I stopped in my tracks. I’ve been in the position of finding articles that seemed to be written about me, but this one had my name written all over it — literally. In the post, my mentee said that I had been instrumental in helping her stay motivated during a really tough recruiting season, especially with COVID-19. As I had told her, it only takes one yes from a job, opportunity, or informational interview to chat.
Reading her post was a really validating moment for me as a mentor. It made me believe that my advice or support could inspire other Women of Color to advocate for themselves. Confidence comes from putting yourself in the conversation and recognizing that you are a valuable asset to every team or company you work with. And if you’re a mentee,
Don’t be afraid to reflect on your identity and the values that show up in your work. Chances are, your mentor will learn from you, too.
I encourage my mentees to tell stories not only about the problems they’re solving, but also how their identity informs their work. We don’t check our identities at the door — they inform the way we approach conversations, solve problems, and support our teammates.
Still, it’s not easy when you’re the only Woman of Color, immigrant, member of the LGBTQIA+ community, or person with disabilities in the room.
There have been times where I talk with mentees about the sheer responsibility that comes with being a Woman of Color in predominantly white spaces, where they often feel the responsibility to educate their coworkers or hide parts of themselves. I remind them to do what they can, where they are — everything else is out of their control.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that mentorship is a two-way street.
Although you can count on me to give feedback on portfolios or share strategies about how to sell the impact of your work, I learn just as much from my mentees. In our conversations, we’ll mutually share stories and advice, and it makes both of us much less alone. They also invite me to reflect more deeply on what gets me out of bed in the morning and when I feel the most connected to my work. As a mentee or mentor, I try to be vulnerable and talk about the tough stuff, too: the challenges of working at a predominantly white company, moments when I feel like writing isn’t valued at an engineering company, and the experiences that make me doubt if I deserve to be there. Like anything, I want my mentees to know that I take the good with the bad, and they often give me some fresh perspective on my own work.
I hope that my mentees go even further than I ever could.
I will always advocate for them when they’re not in the room and remind them they were hired for a reason.
And if an opportunity doesn’t pan out, it’s not the end. Building a long-term relationship with a mentor is a great way to hold yourself accountable and encourage mutual growth.
If you’re looking for a mentor to support you personally or professionally, here are my tips:
1. Identify your needs and interests. Find a mentor that can help you get closer to your goals. Start by identifying what you want to get out of mentorship. Do you want to pivot into the UX industry? Dedicate more intentional space to reflection?
2. Find folks in your industry, or who you are having the conversations you want to be in. Look into employee resource groups, professionals’ groups in your industry, and experts in your discipline or areas of interest. Check out their portfolio, Twitter, and samples of work to see if there’s any common ground: What could you learn from them? What projects interest you? Take notes about what you like about their work and potential follow-up questions like “Why did you study both Psychology and Design?” or “Why did you transition from consulting to technical writing?” Write down these questions, and be prepared to ask them during your initial meeting.
3. Decide if you’re a mutual fit: Once you find someone, introduce yourself and explain your role (student, employee at the same company, etc.) and how you found them. Chances are, they’ll be curious about your story and why you decided to contact them specifically. I recommend setting up a 30-minute conversation, sharing your questions, and using this space as a trial run to see if they’re someone you could see yourself working with long-term. I often ask about when people feel the most fulfilled by their work, and I focus on sharing part of my story along the way. In addition to learning more about their work, I encourage you to deepen the relationship by opening up the conversation to include topics of discussion on identity, work values, personal struggles, imposter syndrome, and more!
I also take note of how the person listens to me. Do they ask follow-up questions, including the tough ones? Have they taken time to look at my portfolio or the links I provided? Personally, I look for a mentor who offers a balance of asking questions and proposing potential solutions, but I encourage you to figure out your own non-negotiables for mentor-mentee relationships.
Here are some questions I keep in mind for meetings like this, whether it’s for an informational interview or just a quick chat with someone in the field:
- What brought you to your current role, and how would you describe your day-to-day work?
- When do you feel the most fulfilled by your work?
- Who are your role models in the field?
- What project are you the most proud of?
- What do you want to be known for on your team, in your field, etc.?
- What kind of workplace culture are you looking for and how do you contribute to creating it?
- What’s something you wish someone had told you before you started this role (or at this company)?
- Who are 2-3 other people that I should meet with? This is one way to take advantage of the snowball effect: the more people you meet, the faster your network grows!
4. Set clear expectations around how frequently you want to meet, and what goals you’re working towards: Talk to your mentor about how often you want to meet, the best way to check in, and what short and long term goals you’re working toward. To ensure that you stay in touch and build the relationship over time, it can help to set up a recurring meeting that you can both block out in your calendars, send a card for the holidays, or add a calendar reminder of important dates that you want to follow up on. Make sure you also talk about how you’ll keep track of action items — it can help to have a shared document that you can use to keep track of the topics you covered in past syncs, or anything you want to go over in the future.
5. Encourage mutual growth: A good mentor should push you to grow and provide you with feedback to get there, so it’s important to communicate what you’re working on or working through. For example, a lot of mentees are trying to figure out how to build their portfolio and break into the tech industry with a non-traditional background. For this reason, I encourage them to showcase their strongest projects by telling clear stories about the problems they solve and connect with hiring decision makers in the industry. Along the way, I challenge them to ask them to drive our conversations and be clear about the feedback they need. For this reason, I recommend having 2 to 3 reflection questions or topics per meeting, all while leaving space for anything that’s top of mind for the mentor or mentee.
6. Follow up: In the words of author and career development speaker Minda Harts, “Follow-up is the most important ingredient in the recipe for sustaining your network.” Once you set expectations, follow up with your mentor if you want a resource or e-introduction to someone in their field. Bonus tip: I always provide my mentors with a bio that outlines my role, interests, and portfolio. That way, they can copy it into introduction emails, and I can take it from there.
7. Remember that your mentor is a person, too: Although it’s always great to talk about jobs, growth, and careers, I think it’s equally beneficial to learn about their life. Don’t forget to catch up on each others’ side projects, milestones, anniversaries, or aspirations.
Whether you meet with a mentor once or build a long-term relationship, always send a personalized thank you email that summarizes what you learned, and even something personal (a podcast, book that reminded you of them, or even a gift card to a coffee shop that they love).
Thank your mentors and mentees for their role in your life. And if you’re in the process of looking for a mentor, I hope that you find someone who’s the person of your dreams.
About — Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is a writer at Microsoft, aspiring creative director, and journalist at heart. These days, she interviews engineers and designers behind the internal tools and resources at Microsoft and shares their stories in Microsoft IT Showcase blogs and videos. She’s also passionate about helping early-in-career professionals feel more confident in telling stories about their identity and work. To follow along with her journey as a writer, check out her Instagram and website, or book a 1:1 session here.
Cover photo credit: Jameela Roland