My Young Padawan — How to be an Effective, Supportive Mentor

In cybersecurity, a mentor/mentee relationship can be immensely important to the professional growth and development of both parties. However, taking on your first mentee can be intimidating. You want to be able to connect them with opportunities and make sure they don’t make the same mistakes you did, but you also don’t want to be forceful and overbearing.

Mentoring another person means you’re willing to be a resource for them when they’re coming up against situations they don’t necessarily know how to handle, or haven’t been in before. You’re there to offer advice and your knowledge in the field, not be their parent or manager. If they don’t always take your advice, do things a bit differently, or perhaps end up learning things the hard way: that’s an important learning experience, too! You’re not there to shield your mentee from the difficulties of the professional world, but rather to offer resources and teach them how to best navigate these situations when you can.

Listening vs. Advising

One important skill (in both life and mentor/mentee relationships) is being able to listen effectively. When someone comes to you with a problem, sometimes they’re looking to vent instead of looking for someone to give solutions. If they need space to express their concerns, and you respond with giving opinions on how things should be handled, that can be off-putting to the person you’re talking with. Conversely, if they’re looking for advice and you respond only with comforting platitudes, that can be frustrating as well. If you’re not yet close enough to your mentee to distinguish between those two situations on your own, you can always ask, “Would you like me to listen or would you like advice?” That way, your mentee has the opportunity to express what they need, and it avoids potential misunderstandings. This can also be useful with other folks you interact with in your daily life, and I highly suggest giving it a try.

What to Do When You Don’t Know

Sometimes, your mentee may come to you with a problem that you don’t quite know how to solve: whether that’s an interpersonal problem, a technical issue, or something entirely different. As an adult (and in life) it’s important to learn how to admit, “I don’t know.” Just because you have a person looking up to you for professional advice does not mean that you have to pretend to know everything. You are human and you shouldn’t let the pressure of being relied on make you a liar for the sake of not shattering their image of you. If you don’t know the best solution for something, you can always point your mentee towards another resource that you have found helpful, or even one of the mentors you found for yourself along the way. When they do figure out the solution, ask them how they solved it and how it went! Just because you’re poised as the teacher in this relationship doesn’t mean you can’t learn from your student.

Following Through

If you do promise to forward your mentee’s information to another person, or you promise to look into something and get back to them, follow through! It can be disheartening for a mentee to think they’ll get some help on a subject, only to not hear about it ever again. Sometimes it’s best to give a timeline in which you think you’ll be able to get something done. This does the double duty of keeping you on track to keep your promises, as well as giving your mentee a time they should check in. Be honest with your schedule as well! If your mentee is asking for something complicated and you’re swamped at work, don’t promise that you’ll have their request done in a day or two. Be upfront about how busy you are, and know that you might just have to say that it won’t happen. Setting your own boundaries about your time and effort is an important part of any professional relationship and should be applied here as well.

Communicating Expectations and Boundaries

The way you and your mentee decide to handle your mentorship is entire up to the both of you. It could be strictly professional or you could be good friends. Each can be just as helpful and supportive as the other. At the bottom line, the most important thing for any mentor/mentee relationship is communication. Communication of expectations, communication of boundaries, and literally communicating to check in with each other every now and again. As long as you keep that in mind, you can set yourself up as a reliable resource for younger professionals in the industry. Commence the networking!

— WebWitch

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