For all of the talk in tech about our unique ability to develop innovative, solutions-oriented products and services, tech companies sometimes fall short when it comes to innovation at the organizational level. One area where technology companies haven’t delivered consistently is mentorship, a valuable tool that has been proven to bolster organizational loyalty and increase profitability. A 2015 study conducted by Endeavor Insight (and reported by TechCrunch) revealed that 33% of company founders who were mentored by successful entrepreneurs went on to become “top performers” (measured by investment, value at acquisition, and internal scale) — three times the rate of those not mentored by successful entrepreneurs.
Mentorship is a low-risk, high-ROI practice that every technology company can integrate into their culture — so why is it not happening more? It could be the long, unconventional hours often demanded by our industry or perhaps the struggle to identify appropriate mentors to play the role. In any case, tech leaders need to reimagine mentoring to better serve professionals in our industry so that we can maximize benefits. Here are a few things to remember.
Don’t Let Age Disqualify Anyone for Mentorship
A huge swath of the innovative thinkers and successful business leaders in tech today are younger than what people typically think of when they think of a mentor. Payscale reported that, of 32 Silicon Valley tech firms surveyed, for eight firms the median age of a worker is 30; at Facebook, the median age is 26. Although not every tech employee has years of experience, these young leaders and innovators can still serve as reliable confidants and sources of inspiration for employees of any age. So, it makes no sense to exclusively seek out older mentors.
Conversely, it makes no sense to exclude older mentors. Many older employees in the tech space are unjustly considered out of touch, a claim with no basis in reality that serves only to hinder access to the insight and guidance these employees could potentially offer. The takeaway here is that good mentors can be any age and that no employee should be automatically exempt from serving as a mentor.
Seek Guidance about More than Just Business
Mentorship doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be all business, even if it’s common for tech companies to prioritize efficiency. There are major benefits to expanding the scope of mentorship. For example, when Raji Arasu, Senior Vice President of Platform and Core Services and CTO of Development at Intuit, began her career, she nearly quit her high-stakes, fast-paced engineering job because it made finding time for her four-year-old son difficult. But before quitting, she talked to her mentor, who offered guidance and practical solutions that made achieving work-life balance possible, even in such a demanding role. “She empathized with my struggles, and offered suggestions to help me manage my time, energy, and family,” Arasu told Mashable earlier this year.
Mentoring should take a holistic approach in order to prevent broader, more personal, problems in tech, such as burnout. In this way, a mentor relationship can humanize an industry that’s often cutthroat and unforgiving when it comes to personal issues.
Find Multiple Mentors — Don’t Hold Out for the “Perfect” One
It can be easy to get discouraged when seeking out a mentor at a large tech company, especially if you’re set on a single individual. The most important thing is to not take it personally. Because mentors are usually formal or informal leaders, they’re often busier than the average employee. “I try to be responsive to requests for help, but these often get pushed down the queue as day-to-day business is all-consuming. And I feel it the other way — I have folks I can ask for help, but I can’t ask them too much without becoming a burden,” Mike Cagney, CEO of SoFi, told Forbes in an interview about the “mentoring gap” facing Silicon Valley firms.
To solve this problem, seek out mentors in as many areas as possible — even outside your company or industry. And, keep requests short and simple; monopolizing a mentor’s time and energy not only distracts from their work (and yours), but also prevents them from helping others.
These principles are useful for individuals seeking mentors, but tech companies can also be proactive by implementing a mentorship program that would formally embody these principles. It could be especially targeted at new employees or those without much experience in technology. This way individuals don’t have to be responsible for finding mentors themselves, further reducing the risk of burnout.