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Mentorship in Design

Not a typical topic in my articles, “Mentorship” is something that emerged due to a few engagements I’m associated with, but also due to a series of articles I’ve been reading on Leadership, Career and Crisis Management, particularly in times of uncertainty, such as the one we’re currently experiencing. This article aims to encapsulate some of my experiences as a Mentee, as a Mentor, and how Designers in both roles have something to gain from them, independently of where they are in their careers.

Wikipedia defines Mentorship as “ a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but he or she must have a certain area of expertise. It is a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn. Interaction with an expert may also be necessary to gain proficiency with/in cultural tools. Mentorship experience and relationship structure affect the “amount of psychosocial support, career guidance, role modeling, and communication that occurs in the mentoring relationships in which the protégés and mentors engaged.” In my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have found Mentors who have helped shape not only my professional stance and approach, but who have also influenced the person who I am. The particular results of that mentorship have been felt across a variety of aspects, which include not only my knowledge base, but that extend to topics such as Communication Skills, Problem solving processes, Approaches to Team Dynamics, and of course, to the process of Mentoring others. Mentors can come across a variety of different of contexts and circumstances, but for many professionals, and for Designers in particular, they typically have their first exposure to this engagement during their Academic training/studies. As careers progress and a professional works through different engagements, Designers can at times be fortunate enough to encounter other seasoned professionals, who take on that mantle of Mentorship and advise, providing an extension of the mentorship previously started during the Academic studies. Mentorship can generally be identified in three distinct phases (during which time Mentors can be powerful catalysts): firstly, during Academic studies, at which time they can provide context on how subject matters will impact someone’s performance in the professional world, secondly, during the transition from Academia to first jobs, in essence providing guidance during interview processes, and navigating the job market, and thirdly, when a professional already within a professional field, seeks out counsel to continuously evolve into other hierarchical positions.

It’s pertinent to observe the qualities which make Mentors effective in their tasks. Communication: it’s fundamental that Mentors are able to communicate clearly and effectively with their mentees. That of course, requires not only the Mentor realizing the audience he’s addressing, but also being able to share information accessibly and fluently, independently of the audience at hand. Understanding who your mentees are, makes all the difference, and guides the approach by which the content is delivered. Approachable: it goes without saying that a Mentor should be approachable, reachable and ultimately available to their mentees. Approachability not only from a calendar perspective, but more importantly, from a stance and personality perspective. A mentor who is humble, enthusiastic, available and who is able to create rapport with his mentees, is definitely more successful in passing along his message. Collaborative: a mentorship relationship is one where the Mentor does share experiences and insights, but also one that needs to understand the context of the mentee, of their own path and journey. Only a Mentor who is able to collaborate with his mentee, but also with other professionals, can in fact grow as a professional, as a person, and ultimately provide a sound and more grounded expertise. Adaptive: reality is ever evolving, and now more than ever, we’re going through a demonstration of that point exactly. Solid mentors must realize that society is constantly evolving, circumstances change, and it’s important that acknowledging this factor is part of the process itself. As the unexpected occurs, Mentors may be caught in situations where they lack the experience or insight to best solve the situation. Acknowledging that in no way removes impact on their findings.

If I may add a personal perspective on this topic, what I’ve personally always appreciated of the mentors I’ve had in my career, included some qualities such as: candor, enthusiasm, persistence and humility. I’ve benefited from professionals who had considerable experience in the field, who helped me guide my career both through Training/Teaching situations, providing insight into tools, team relationships, and later, people who believed in my work, in my point of view, empowering me to communicate better, to constantly refine my approach, and always learn from my experiences. In a Discipline such as Design, where problem solving is so fundamental, but where technology walks hand in hand with the outcomes of that activity, it’s fundamental that Mentors are also very savvy about what’s currently occurring, while also acknowledging what lies ahead. My mentors not only fulfilled the qualities above, but they went far and beyond in shaping my professional skills, while also informing my personal stance on a variety of topics.

A relationship is only as effective as the other partner is deeply committed to what is taking place. Mentors are only one part of the equation, the other lying with the Mentees. In order for this relationship to be successful and fruitful for a mentee, here are some qualities which I believe are at the core of their behaviors. Ask: it’s a very self explanatory term, but it’s at the core of the relationship. The mentee should ask questions, based on a series of factors, namely the context of where they are professionally or academically, but asking relevant and pertinent questions helps create a fluidity to the relationship. It also demonstrates work previously done, research, and investment in the process itself. Listen: Listening is an almost lost quality (check my article on the Importance of Listening). These days, when everyone has so many points of view, all aiming for validation and attention, it’s important that Designers ask the questions, but also that they learn to listen (as opposed to just waiting for their turn to talk). Learning to listen not only applies to your Mentor, but also to your peers, clients, sales, development colleagues, and the list goes on. Being able to listen allows for the Mentor to also develop a deeper rapport and a far more rewarding relationship, since they know you’re invested in what is taking place. Prepare: As most Designers know, a lot of the work of these professionals (Product, UX, UI, Visual, Interaction, Service, among others), lies on research, on work that is done before an engagement begins, in order for the narrative that is being built to be sensical, and not just an assorted and random amount of inputs amassed together. As a Mentee, outlining a plan for what someone wants to know, what they want to get out of the relationship, goals, expectations, are all elements that should be prepared and outlined beforehand. Again it demonstrates investment, organizational skills, and respect for everyone’s time and availability.

Reality Check. Personally, having had mentors such as Sérgio Aveiro and David Flynt, has changed my life. I consider myself tremendously fortunate, that individuals with such skill, talent, wisdom and kindness were able to teach me so much. Being able to continue to share their good work, their perspective, their mentorship skills, even at a fraction of their immense talent, is something that I hope I’m able to perpetuate, not only in what I do, but just as equally important, in the people I come in contact with as a Designer. Mentoring is something that requires a considerable amount of self-awareness, humbleness and transparency. Only by being humane, stripping away all that is artificial, can a person successfully build bridges to their peers, and provide the guidance that may at times be required.

I’ll conclude with the following quote, from Benjamin Franklin on the topic of mentoring:

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Mentorship in Design was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.