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The Role of the Design Mentor

June 20, 2012

A couple days ago, I got an email from a local designer asking me to be his mentor. (I’m listed on the Information Architect Institute’s web site for this.) Whenever I get such a request, I immediately ask about expectations: goals, commitment, and topics. Upon getting his response, I crafted the following, which I thought would make a pretty good addition to this otherwise anemic blog. Enjoy.

I’ve mentored about a dozen people over the years. One thing to realize is that for both of us, this commitment will fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Client commitments, business commitments, and family commitments will always come first. Because this kind of “professional growth” lacks the context of real work, it’s easy to de-prioritize it, you know?

I can’t commit to working on this for more than one hour per month. That is, no work outside a monthly phone call, as little preparation as possible. I do this not because I’m lazy (though I am) but because I know I’ll never get to those assignments. I have more billable work than I can possibly accomplish, more tasks to run my business than I can possibly get to, and I turn off work in the evenings and weekends to spend time with my family. What little “free” time I do have, I dedicate to side projects that are personally important to me.

I tell you all this to help you understand what I’ve learned over the years mentoring people both inside and outside EightShapes. By far the best possible way to grow professionally is to take time to reflect on your work. As a mentor, my job is to facilitate that internal conversation with yourself, to build your self-awareness, and to improve your ability to critique your own work.

By setting these expectations with “mentees,” I hope to institute a specific dynamic for our conversations. We look at the previous month’s work and we talk about what they could have done better. We talk about difficult conversations they experienced and talk about what insecurities and mental ticks lead to those situations. We consider upcoming work and talk about how to incorporate lessons learned from their previous gigs. Though I’ve been a teacher (lectures and workshops), in this relationship I’m less tutor and more therapist and sounding board.

If that’s not what you need, then I’m not the right mentor for you.

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