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“Storytime With Managers” are the questions you would ask an expert over a cup of coffee (including the ones you feel scared to ask), packaged up into 20min podcast episodes.

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Mentoring Mentors with Tara Ellis - Transcript

JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.

I’m Jennifer Tu, and I’m here with Tara Ellis to talk about how to teach others how to mentor. Tara, can you tell us a little about yourself?

TARA: Yes, I am currently an Engineering Manager at Netflix. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this sort of stuff because I am very invested in growing my team and growing other engineers.

JENNIFER: Awesome. Thanks so much for being here.

TARA: Thanks for having me.

JENNIFER: I’m kind of wondering, what should a manager think about when they’re asking their reports to mentor someone else? And if you’re a manager doing that, what should you expect from someone who’s mentoring for the very first time?

TARA: I’ll take the second one first. I think it’s worthwhile making sure that the people that you’re going to ask to do this actually have an interest in doing it. Because if they’re not invested in doing it and they’re just doing it because they want to, they’re not going to actually do it well and they’re not going to be able to follow through. So, I would definitely spend some time trying to identify who those people are. And then I would talk to those people directly and say, “Hey, I think that you actually have a lot to offer in this space. And I think not only would it be great for the team and for that individual engineer who wants or needs that mentoring, but it also would be a really great learning experience for you to kind of figure out how to externalize some of the things that are actually in your head or some of the processes that got you where you are.”

JENNIFER: All right. Let’s say they say yes or maybe they just don’t really say no.

TARA: [Laughs]

JENNIFER: What do you do? How do you set them up for success? How do you get them started? They’re amenable to starting, but they don’t really know how.

TARA: I think what I would start with is I’d probably ask them, “Have you ever been mentored in your life?” Is there any leader or tech lead that you’ve worked with, that you felt like, I really learned a lot from this person?” So I’d probably try to get them to identify that. Then I would go a step further and say kind of, “What did they do that you really liked?” For example, when I became a manager for the first time, I had a director who was really fantastic. And what worked really well for me was that he was really good at kind of giving me space, but also being able to kind of step in when he felt like – he could kind of anticipate the sorts of things that I would struggle with. And he was very proactive about that. But he didn’t just like step in and fix it. He would kind of engage me about it. “What do you think about this thing? How are you thinking about approaching that?” Or what have you? And that that would open the floodgates for me to actually be to say, “Oh, my God, I’m really struggling with this thing.” So, that was like an example of something that works really well for me.

So, I would try to ask that person, “Hey, what’s worked for you? Think about what that is and try to understand exactly why it was useful for you.” And that’s kind of where you can start with bringing someone along. It’s interesting because are they going to be mentoring technical skills? Are they going to be mentoring core skills, these more around communication, around kind of leading in that way?

JENNIFER: Core skills. Oh, wow. I really like that phrasing. I’m going to need to remember to use that in the future.

TARA: [Laughs] I don’t know exactly when it started here, but it was like stop calling them soft skills, they’re core skills. People need to have them. Absolutely.

JENNIFER: That’s amazing. I am definitely going to start using that.

TARA: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Okay. Let’s say that you’ve got your report, they’re game for doing this. They have some ideas of people who they can model for how to mentor. How do you pair them up with someone who needs mentoring? And how do you make that match?

TARA: I think you have some really obvious things. So, a new engineer joins the team. They’re new to the company. They’re new to the team. That’s a really simple kind of like we need someone who can kind of onboard this person but onboard them in a different way than just kind of showing them where the bathroom is, showing them where the code repo is. So, one of my engineers that I actually spent a lot of time working with, I had given her this responsibility to basically onboard all of our new engineers. And we had kind of sat together and kind of sorted out high level, what were some of the things like a new engineer needed to know. And then she kind of put together her own documentation around, like, here are the technical things that you need to kind of do. And so between us, we actually ended up meeting with that engineer maybe multiple times over the next month. I probably did it weekly, but she was doing it kind of on a daily basis. And sitting in the conference room, like walking them through kind of like the architecture, walking them through documentation and like having this really, really hands-on approach. Maybe not every company needs that. But for us, an organization that doesn’t have a lot of documentation, there’s a lot of tribal knowledge here, that kind of handoff is really crucial. So that’s one scenario. New hire, super simple.

Let’s say you’re trying to work on a different sort of thing. So I have someone on my team who’s really good at communicating and project leading, and I have another engineer in my team who wants to spend more time doing that, but they aren’t really good at that. That, to me, will also be like another match. Instead of coming to me, talking with your peer about how they do that stuff and how they work together and working more hands on with that, that’s another way of matching. Does that make sense?

JENNIFER: That makes sense. So in that situation, you’ve got someone who actively wants mentorship and someone who actively is open to or willing or wants to give mentorship.

TARA: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Is there another situation where maybe you’ve got someone who needs more work in communications and they’re not actively seeking it? Is that a situation in which you could have someone mentor them?

TARA: Yes, you absolutely could do that. At Netflix, we’re definitely a culture that encourages transparency and feedback, up and down and across. It would not be weird for an engineer to come to you as your peer and say, “Hey, I’d like to give you some feedback on something,” or, “I’d like to work with you on something.” I think in organizations where that isn’t the norm, that could be a little challenging. So you’d have to probably be careful around how you do that. Who would be the person who would identify that? I would anticipate in more top-down organizations that maybe it would be the manager that would say, “I feel like you need some help on this. I want to see you get better. And I’d like you to work with this other engineer on our team or a more senior member on the team, to kind of help you work through that.” I don’t know. What do you think about that? Do you think that that model of just being transparent feedback can work in cultures that that isn’t the case?

JENNIFER: I think it could, but only if you’ve got a lot of trust with the person who says, “I want you to work with the other person.” If you don’t have a lot of trust, then the engineer who’s given the feedback of ‘here’s an area to improve’, might feel attacked, they might have isolated, they might just feel bad. So, it really depends on how much trust you have.

TARA: Yeah, I know that’s a tough one. I’m trying to think like, what would be the origination of that conversation because it’s something that has to happen. But I feel like if you just walked up cold to one of your peers and just say, “I think you need to communicate better,” [laughing] I just don’t see that working that well. But if you came from the manager, then they might think they’re in trouble. [Laughs] So, you don’t want that either, right?

JENNIFER: Yeah. Well, here’s a situation I could see it working in is if you’re the manager, if you’re flagging things in one-on-ones of, “Hey, this is the area I want you to improve in.” And if you’re asked, “Well, how do I do that?” Or if it’s a topic that you return to every couple of months and you can offer a perspective like, “Hey, it looks like you’re struggling with this or I want to help you more,” or things like that. So that might be a situation where that could work.

TARA: Yeah, that’s true. I definitely think kind of going back to an earlier question, we were talking about a situation where when you have someone who’s kind of more willing to mentor. I mean, I think that conversation has to happen. Like as a manager, you can have with this person – let’s say if we follow in the scenario where, sure, we’re having this one on one. We’re talking through some of the areas with which you can improve. And maybe we talk about some ways with which you can go about it. I do think then when you’re trying to work on getting like one of your other engineers to mentor them, I think it has to be real clear that you’re asking them to do that. You can’t have this unspoken expectation or I wouldn’t want to send that engineer to someone else without giving them a heads up, that that’s what’s coming because it puts them in an awkward position. I would want to basically get that buy-in.

So, for example, I had a new hire. He had started – and I had mentioned my engineer before who I’d had to kind of do a lot of the onboarding. Well, we had been working on our own for a while. And she had gotten to a point where she was ready herself to become a manager. And so, she had taken another role within the company as a manager. That was great. Super proud of her, she’s awesome. Now, we don’t have this anymore. And everyone always leaned on her, kind of as like the fulcrum. So I went to two other engineers on my team who are also very senior. I said, “Hey, I know that all of us have leaned on this engineer because,” – well, twofold. One is that she wanted that responsibility. She was really good at it. And there’s not a lot of egos on my team. So I’m like, “Great. You can have it.” It’s not a problem. And I think the other reason was, – well, I guess that’s it, basically. She wanted that. She was really good at it and people didn’t have a lot of concerns or issues around it.

So once she left, I was like, “Hey, we need to spread this out now.” I would like it to not be concentrated with one person. And so I asked them. I was like, “I would like you to be available to this new engineer. Make sure you’re looking at his code reviews, like you’re kind of taking an active interest so that he’s not kind of left out in the cold.” I also felt like he was someone who didn’t, since he was new, he didn’t necessarily always feel comfortable asking for help. He often felt like, “Well, if I ask, it’s going to seem like I don’t know what I’m doing.” So in our conversations, I’m like, “Well, you don’t. You’re new. Of course, you should ask. Please ask.” But I told him, “I have ask these other two engineers to be available to you to answer any questions that you have about the stuff that you’re doing. Please use them.” And so, kind of trying to facilitate that relationship. And then eventually, he did get more comfortable with them. And then they also didn’t start it kind of sitting down and doing that same kind of situation. But I think if you don’t facilitate that, you’re potentially causing bigger issues.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Do you know what it was that made him more comfortable?

TARA: In what way? To start asking?

JENNIFER: Not just to start asking, but to start engaging with these two mentors that he had available?

TARA: I think probably two things. I think one thing like me kind of just acknowledging that, like, “This other engineer played this role in your day to day and they’re not here anymore. And I still feel that that information, though, is crucial for you to get. You’re still in knowledge transfer. So, I’m not going to pretend that’s not happening. What I’m going to try to do is address that for you.” So with him, I could say that. With the other two, both of them, when I first brought them onto the team, a lot of why I brought them onto the team was to be in more kind of senior roles. I mean, everyone’s senior. But in these particular ways and I expressed that to them. I’m like, “Hey, this is a part of why I hired you and brought you in to do this sort of work. I know it’s not like your full time job, but I think you both would be really good at it. I think you’re both great teachers. You’re both very patient and you have a lot of empathy. And I know that you want to grow and you want to increase your impact. And this is a way to do that.”

So I think like him feeling like, “Okay. My manager’s not going to be mad at me if I’m asking questions,” and then them also being like, “Okay, let’s extend, let’s be proactive about reaching out to him instead of waiting for him to come to us, because that’s going to be probably harder for him in the beginning.” I think over time, he asked a question. They answered immediately. And he realized, “Oh, it’s safe for me to do this.” And then he just starts doing it more and more. And I’m also reinforcing, “Good. Thank you. I really appreciate that you’re doing this. In a month, you won’t need all this. But for now, please. Nothing is too dumb, please ask.”

JENNIFER: Wow, okay. So that means the secret to making these mentorship relationships work as a manager is to just turn up the safety feelings as high as you can go.

TARA: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. Yeah, absolutely. I also believe that I think people in general, it’s not just tech, I think everyone in communication, people just do not provide enough context. What is wrong with just saying I know this must be hard? Let’s just make it not hard. Just acknowledge that. No, these are not the things you’re going to be judged by. In two years, if you still need this much handholding, we’ll have a different conversation. But two weeks, that’s not even – I try to tell my new hires, “Three months. Don’t even think about it for three months because you have a lot to learn in that time frame. So, don’t stress out about it. Your job now is to learn as much as you can.”

JENNIFER: That means that part of setting that feeling of safety means setting expectations and giving perspective for what is normal and what does you performing normal and expected look like.

TARA: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Oh, that’s really neat.

TARA: I think we all want it. Even I’ve been here for a little over three years and I still have conversations with my directors sometimes. I’m like, “Am I going down the right path?” [Chuckles] I just need to know.

JENNIFER: Yeah. What are your expectations? Am I meeting them?

TARA: Yeah. I will say outside of the – we’ve talked about very concrete things. We’re talking about new hires or maybe over a specific skill, going back to the specific skill for a second. I think where it could be difficult is when you have a team member who knows that they have a gap and they need to grow, but they don’t know how or they don’t know what.

JENNIFER: All right.

TARA: And trying to facilitate getting that Christmas for them so that you can help them. So, for example, I had a new hire. And when she first came in, she was basically like, initially it was kind of like, “I know that I eventually want to be a manager.” “Okay, great. Why?” So, we have that why conversation even if we’re like three minutes. “Okay, cool. It’s good for me to know that. Thank you. Please keep telling me that stuff.” But then over time, I broke that down. Being a manager means a lot of things. Why do you want to be a manager? What exactly are you looking for? And kind of breaking that stuff down. And then we eventually got to a place where she could say, “I want to increase my visibility. I want to increase my ownership of the things that I own in the org and I want to have impact.” So now I have three things that this person needs. And they’re concrete. So now I can say, “Okay, this project will give you this. This project will give you that, and this one will do that.” And now we have something that we can actually work off. I find the hardest thing when you’re trying to mentor someone who’s trying to get them to actually articulate what they need.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Do you have any, I don’t know, standard questions or tricks that you use to help people find what it is that they want and share that with you?

TARA: Yeah, that’s good. I think that’s still in process. But I’ll share with you what I do. [Chuckles]

JENNIFER: Okay.

TARA: Back to the thing about just kind of context. I usually try to ask them what they want. What is it that you’re looking for? What areas do you think you need to grow in? I ask a lot of ‘why’. To kind of give you an example. Like, “I want to get better at this.” I’m like, “Why do you want to get better at this? What does that have in value for you that’s why you want to do that?” And the part of it is that I want them to think critically about their motivations. It’s nothing wrong. I don’t see there’s anything wrong with someone who says like, “I’m very goal oriented and I would like to climb the ladder.” That’s great. But I’m going to give you different advice. I want to give someone that’s like, “I derive meaning in fulfilling this role. This is going to be a really different way that we’re going to go about it.” So really trying to understand their motivations and getting them to also be able to understand that. And the only way to do that is really doing a lot of questions.

And if I start to get answers that are vague, I just don’t really allow vague answers. So I’ll just keep questioning. And sometimes, we don’t solve this necessarily in one conversation. So sometimes, I ask them to write stuff down. Go back here three things that I want you to sit and think about. And in a month, come back and let’s talk about that stuff. Really take some time to focus through that. Sometimes, depending on the person. Sometimes I don’t let the cycle go that long because I know they’ll turn. I’m like, “Tomorrow, you’re going to come in with this answer.” It’s very tailored on who that person is. But I think ultimately, trying to get that, and then on top of that, explaining why I’m asking. Again, the reason why this matters is if I don’t understand the ways with which you want to grow explicitly, then I cannot tailor make the opportunities that you need. And the reality of the situation is you’re not going to see the same opportunities that I see because this in a different level than you. My director exists at a different level than me. He sees opportunities I don’t. So, like I have to really know. Don’t be shy about telling me.

JENNIFER: So it sounds like what you do when you’re trying to draw people out is suggest relentlessly seek more context. And you’re basing your questions around how can I get more context around what this person wants and why they want it.

TARA: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Cool.

TARA: I think, too, especially with senior engineers, I think when you’re someone who’s newer to the field, and I’m not talking about time. I want to get away from time. I don’t want to be like, “You’ve spent three years, you’re a junior engineer.” That’s not a good measure. But when you’re still trying to acquire skills, in lots of ways, this mentoring is easy. It’s like, “Hey, if you want to get better at building JavaScript applications, read this book, this book, this book. Let’s walk through this kind of exercise. Let’s spend some time doing design reviews together. Let me oversee your architecture.” Like that kind of really practical stuff. I think in many ways, earlier on in a career are easier to do. It’s when you get to the point where you’re like, “Okay, I’ve kind of nailed this stuff. I’m pretty good at what I do tactically, technically. But I would like more impact. I’d like my voice to be heard more in a space.” And like trying to mentor someone around how to communicate in a way that derives the most impact in a space, that is actually quite difficult. [Laughs] And more importantly, it takes a lot of time. And that’s where I was like, “I will help you. But we’re not going to solve this in a week. This is going to be an ongoing, maybe a year process. And so, we have to be very intentional about how we work towards it.” So that’s where those motivation is going to come in.

JENNIFER: What do you think about when someone drops something like that on you? What goes through your head and how do you prepare yourself and put yourself into the right mindset to help them?

TARA: I don’t mean to be flippant, but I do think this is a part of my job. I do feel like, as I’ve said to my peers, “If I’m doing my job correctly, then most of my team will leave at some point.” Because I am trying to groom them and then push them out where they can get other opportunities. I welcome these sorts of conversations, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time kind of getting ready for it. I think again, for me, the harder conversations is trying to understand their motivation and also actually [inaudible] into this before, but also getting there buy-ins. It’s like this stuff takes work. If I’m going to spend this time, you have to commit to doing it. And so, I have had that over time where I’ve had engineers who are like, “This is what I want. I want to be mentored in this particular way.” “Okay, great. Let’s do that.” And then they’re like, “I don’t know if this is what I want.” I’m like, “That’s okay. Let’s have that conversation.” But we can stop. But what I don’t want to do is I am pouring a lot of time into it and then they’re not really pouring that back. We’re not meeting each other halfway. Then I’m like, “This is not a good use of my time.”

JENNIFER: It needs to be reciprocal.

TARA: Absolutely. And also, I try to say, “You are driving this. I am helping you, but you’re the one who basically determines where we go.”

JENNIFER: That’s right. Tara, we are out of time. Do you have any final words of advice for our listeners?

TARA: I guess I would say that I think that we’re kind of on a lifelong journey. All of us at every stage of the corporate ladder. All of us are still trying to grow and learn. And the reality of the situation is there’s only so much you’re going to get out of a book. So, a lot of navigating these trickier kind of experiences, again, kind of around communication or thought leadership or whatever, is really relying on the people who’ve done it before and have done it well. And so, you should never shy away from understanding who those people are and then trying to seek out that help from them.

JENNIFER: Wow. Thanks so much. Tara, if people want to continue the conversation, what’s the best way for them to reach you?

TARA: Sure. You can reach me on my Twitter. It is @maverick_mind.

JENNIFER: Got it. Thanks so much.

TARA: Thank you.

JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. I’m Jennifer Tu. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we are edited by Mandy Moore and the DevReps crew.

If you like this episode, please think about leaving us a review on your favorite podcast listening platform. This can make a really big difference in helping other people find and start listening to Storytime with Managers. Thanks so much.

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Storytime With Managers is hosted by Jennifer Tu of Cohere.

Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod (CC-BY)

Editing is by Mandy Moore and the DevReps crew!

Editing for Seasons 1 and 2 was by Bryant from Zinc - thank you, we couldn't have started this without you!

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