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Play Your Part: Mentor the Next Generation

My goal in writing this blog series is to find solutions to the problem of diversity in the design industry – well, I think I’ve found one. It may even involve me playing Cupid…

In parts one and two I discussed affordability, timing and training – issues which resonate with many of our candidates and clients at Zebra People. It was eye-opening to hear so many opinions on these subjects from readers all around the world, at different levels and in different sectors. One of the key points that emerged from these discussions is the need for more mentors. Clients want candidates to have a more rounded education and a diverse range of experience, while candidates just want some help to understand the industry better so they can progress. So why isn’t mentoring more common?

Time

A common reason I hear is that people don’t have the time to mentor. There seems to be a belief amongst senior designers that mentoring is a huge commitment. I disagree: the beauty of mentoring is that there are no set rules to follow. It can involve as little as a one-off ten-minute conversation on the phone, or it can become a committed relationship with regular meet-ups – and every variation in between. A man named Mike Welch once emailed Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco at the time, to ask him for half an hour of advice. Leahy ended up joining his board and last year Welch’s company sold for £50 million. So you see, it can literally pay dividends!

Shyness

It can be daunting to approach someone you admire asking for advice. Sarcastic comments on social media channels deriding those who have requested guidance are, unfortunately, commonplace. But if we (recruiters, clients, industry experts) create a better ideology of mentoring, one which views the process of sharing knowledge between juniors and seniors as positive, productive and mutually beneficial, then this will help to combat any negativity that currently taints the process of mentoring.

It’s a two-way thing

Although a lot of these posts are intended to offer help to juniors, this doesn’t mean we should forget the immense pressures senior designers are under – the pressure to perform, to be creative, to surpass peers, etc. The process of mentoring might offer senior designers a break from the pressures of their everyday working environment.

In this sense, mentoring should be seen as beneficial to both parties – senior designers might gain something from talking to juniors and from having a general, reflective and frank discussion on the nature of the job and the industry. Mentoring is, of course, an opportunity to ‘give back’ and to improve the CV. Even established professionals are always looking for ways to ‘stand out’ and mentoring is a great way to show off skills and make a claim for expertise. Finally, and as this post points out, a mentor will almost always learn something themselves in the process – and hey, if it’s not the satisfaction of knowing you’re giving back to your industry that drives you, then at least be motivated by the flattery that comes with knowing that someone wants to learn from you!

The pressure’s off

I think that there is something else unique to the process of mentoring which is rarely touched on. Career development, in pretty much every profession, is measured according to basic dichotomies of good/bad; right/wrong; success/failure. An employee has certain “rules” that they must adhere to – be it terms and conditions of employment, mission statements, company cultures, or whatever. The relationship between a mentor and a mentee, on the other hand, offers a moment of escape from the black and white nature of the professional work place. By this I mean that mentoring and being mentored does not work as an evaluative process: a mentor does not judge their mentee, and in the eyes of the mentor, a mentee cannot ‘fail’. Rather, a mentor simply supports, listens and guides. They are a kind of neutral ‘outsider’ who has absolutely no stake in the protégé’s career progression, and no direct effect on it. Equally, the mentee offers the mentor a moment to forget about the judgments of their working environment by creating a neutral or private space for honest dialogue (about work, or indeed anything!). I think this is something that makes mentoring totally unique, valuable and perhaps most importantly, enjoyable!

Let’s make it happen

Mentoring is something I personally have always believed in, having been on both sides of the relationship. I feel privileged to have two older brothers working in design who have always inspired and helped me; I have also been very happy to lend my own experience to people looking to be mentored. I believe you never stop learning and I strongly feel that more people should put their hand up. So, if you are reading this thinking “I need a mentor” or “I would like to be a mentor” then allow me to play Cupid! We already have a number of people keen to get involved on both sides – and I’m happy to help match people. Mentoring could really be the key to solving the issue of accessibility – so let’s all play our part.

Please share this post and get in touch if you want to be involved!

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