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Will you be you be my mentor Q&A

Will You Be My Mentor?— YouX 2023 Q&A with Paul Derby, Devin Harold, Dr. Erika Spear, Varun Murugesan

In this panel, we’ll define: what is coaching, what is mentoring, what’s the difference? Learn about the mentor and mentee perspective.

Your career path in UX is unique - just like you! This can be empowering because opportunities are endless, but it can also be overwhelming. 

In this panel, we’ll define terms: what is coaching, what is mentoring, what’s the difference? We’ll also hear experiences from both the mentee and mentor perspective, and how to achieve goals on either side of the relationship.

✏️ Editor’s Note: All Q&A responses have been edited for length and clarity.

🎥 Watch the panel recording

📌 About the keynote speakers: Paul Derby, Devin Harold, Dr. Erika Spear, Varun Murugesan

Paul Derby

Paul Derby (he/him) is a UX research leader at ServiceNow - and a professional certified coach who helps researchers and people managers lead with integrity and navigate change. In previous iterations of his career, Paul was a research leader at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a researcher at Facebook and Honeywell, and was a design educator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and the University of Minnesota. Paul lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his husband and three-year-old son.

Devin Harold

Devin Harold is the Director - Head of Design Research for Financial Services at Capital One where he leads an embedded research team across core experiences within the car-buying journey. He sets the departmental vision and strategy, oversees program execution, and empowers his team to drive human-centered decisions in the $1.4 trillion automotive lending industry. 

Outside of Capital One, Devin loves to give back to the community through guest lecturing at Carnegie Mellon University, speaking at conferences, or writing articles about the impact of user research. 

Dr. Erika Spear

Erika is a research manager at AnswerLab and leads a team of researchers to provide amazing services to the clients from top tech companies.

She uses mentorship opportunities as a way to give back to the UX community and to help folks trying to leave academia.

Varun Murugesan

Varun is cofounder of Apple & Banana (a UX research publication) and author of Fruitful, a UX research knowledge base & toolkit.

His mission is to excite and educate the next wave of UX researchers, particularly those early in their educational and professional journey.

He’s worked at Facebook, Best Buy, and SeatGeek as a mixed methods researcher and lives in Minnesota with his fiancé and their dog, Cashew!

💬 Q&A

How would you define mentorship in a few words?

Devin: Mentorship is an intentional relationship within which knowledge or experience is shared from one to another. 

Erika: Mentorship is a cultivated and intentional relationship between two people where the mentor helps uplift the mentee to reach their goals.

Paul: Mentorship is guidance offered by a mentor (i.e., someone with experience, skills, knowledge) to a mentee (i.e., someone who has not yet gained that experience, skills, knowledge). Mentorship might include pointing someone into the right direction, providing moral support, helping someone make informed decisions, or helping someone develop skills or perspectives. 

How would you summarize the differences between mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship?

Devin: Mentorship is about learning from someone else who has the knowledge, experience, and skills that you want to attain. Mentors are often in your specific industry, and are in a position you want or which you aspire to. 

Coaching is about thoughtful reflection to work through your own problems using tried and true frameworks our resources.  Coaches likely aren’t employed in your industry and are usually trained coaching professionals who are paid. 

Sponsorship is about finding a senior, often organizationally influential, ally in your specific company with whom you foster a mutually beneficial relationship so they may elevate your contributions and subsequently your career. 

Erika: There are three differences between mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship. First is focus: Mentorship focuses on personal growth; coaching focuses on skills, tactics, and tangible goals; sponsorship focuses on upward mobility in an organization.

Second is the driver in each relationship. In mentorship, the mentee is the driver; in coaching, the coach is the driver; in sponsorship, both are drivers but in different ways.

Third is the results of the relationship. In mentorship, the result is a change in mindset and internal growth. In coaching, you can level up in specific skills. With sponsorship you can achieve career advancement.

Paul: Mentors likely have the domain experience, skills, and knowledge you want to gain. Certified coaches may not have the domain experience, skills, and knowledge - but are trained in coaching-related skills. 

Structure-wise— mentoring is an informal or semi-structured relationship. Coaching is a structured relationship with clear agreements on goals, timelines, meetings, and homework. 

Problem-solving plays an active role in helping you solve problems by brainstorming solutions, sharing perspectives, or providing advice. It plays a supportive role in helping you arrive at a solution on your own - and exploring the internal barriers that may be getting in the way.

In regards to training, there is no specific training required to be a mentor. Many coaches complete intensive training and certification programs; may hold credentials from the International Coaching Federation.

With payment, mentorship is likely an unpaid relationship, while coaching is likely a paid relationship.

Is paid mentorship better than volunteered mentorship?

Devin: Not in my book! Personally, I believe mentorship is richer when there’s mutual motivation; to give and to receive knowledge, not money. While both could lead to valuable outcomes, paid mentorship supports the wrong incentives and may lead to a more transactional relationship. 

Paul: It depends. In an ideal situation, you may have access to mentors who have the experience, skills, and/knowledge you’re developing. You may access them through work, school, or your personal/professional network. However, if you don’t have access, then you may need to seek mentorship through different avenues - like messaging people on Linkedin, signing up for free sessions on ADPList, or scheduling time with someone for a fee. 

Paying for guidance does not mean it is more valuable. Rather, many people just want to be compensated for their time and expertise - totally fair! Regardless of the avenue you choose, determine whether the person you’re seeking help from has the experience, skills, or knowledge that you’re looking for so that the time you spend is meaningful for everyone. 

For mentees, when transitioning careers (Marketing to UX Design), do you believe that having a mentor amplifies the chances of landing a first UX job?

Devin: Yes. There’s a reason for the saying, “There’s strength in numbers.” And while that phrase is usually referenced in regards to physical safety, it holds true when referring to being able to leverage more perspectives, more data points, and several smart individuals in order to hone your thinking, portfolio, and craft. 

Erika: Yes, they gave me confidence and helped me frame my experience from a UX perspective, which in turn helped me land the first UX job.

Paul: When navigating a career shift, I think it’s important to build relationships with two types of people: experienced UXers who have the type of job you want and newer UXers who have recently made the transition you are making. Experienced UXers are able to share their perspectives about the UX field, what it takes to be successful - and even offer referrals. Newer UXers who recently made a similar transition are able to share relevant advice about what worked (or didn’t work) in their own journey, which may help you focus on what’s important and avoid mistakes. 

How should you approach someone within your organization if you think they can help you advance your career? How can we request championship/sponsorship from someone and how should that relationship be?

Devin: Start small! Just schedule a lunch, coffee, or 30 minute virtual meet and greet with someone who you want to learn from, and who may have special influence in your organization or relative to your work. Let them know you’d love to learn from their expertise. Come to the meeting ready to chit chat, but also come with a few very pointed, open ended questions about their background or journey. If you feel there’s value in continuing the relationship (and if you’re feeling they might agree), then ask them if you can follow up in a few weeks and if they’d be willing to provide their perspective on a few challenges, or tough decisions, you’re making. 

If they’re game for a second meeting, they may be willing to do something more long term. In your second session with them, let them know how valuable you’ve found your discussions, and ask if they’d be willing to continue on a recurring basis to support your career in the company! 

Erika: It is an organic process. Start small, maybe approach someone for coffee chats and see if there is a connection. Once a relationship is established, make sure to have discussions about your goals, and how the person can help you reach them, and why they should help you. Showing gratitude and sharing success stories will go a long way in creating a rewarding relationship for both parties.

Paul: I agree with Devin and Erika!  

How should you introduce yourself to a person you want advice/mentorship from who is not in your immediate professional network? 

Devin: Honestly. Start with a brief intro of who you are, and where you are in your career journey. Share something very specific that this potential mentor did (or does) which you find helpful, interesting or inspiring. Then start small — ask if they’d be willing to meet for coffee, lunch or a virtual session to give you some help on a challenge you’re facing. In that session, if you believe both of you found value in the discussion, just ask if they’ll be a recurring mentor! The worst they can say is no. And at least you tried. 

Erika: Never send out blanket messages. Include some personal touch, do the research first. If you read their articles and really loved the insights, let them know! Identify some common interests, such as being a member of the same professional associations, going to the same conferences, or sharing common interests and mutual connections. Ask for a short meeting first and prepare a list of questions beforehand.

Paul: Here are a few tips about cold-messaging someone you’d like to meet with:

Clarify the challenge you’re experiencing. Before reaching out to anyone, do your homework on the topic first. Likely, many answers are out there already. Doing this may help you sharpen your request.

Intentionally choose people who have the experience, skills, or knowledge to help you with your challenge. Communicate to them why you’re reaching out to them specifically. Then, make your request short, specific, and direct. If your challenge is complicated or vague, then consider reaching out to a career coach or advisor (remember: this may be a paid relationship).

Accept that recipients may not respond or may reject your request. Being ignored or rejected says nothing about you — or them. Don't let the idea of rejection deter you from asking for what you want.

For more information, check out the article Reaching out to Mentors in the UX Research Community.

As a mentee/coachee, I often worry about maintaining these relationships and ensuring that I am not asking too much from my mentor. Any thoughts or advice?

Devin: Ask them if you’re being too much. Ask them if you’re respecting their time, space, and focusing enough on your discussions. We should always ask for feedback on how we are doing if we are worried about our own performance or the part we play in the relationship. Take whatever feedback you receive seriously and own it as you move forward. 

Erika: Establish a structure with regular check ins, recurring meetings, and progress reviews, so your mentor knows what to expect. Build trust and respect the boundaries a mentor sets up. Trust that if you’re asking too much your mentor will tell you.

Paul: I believe that all relationships are designed - and, unfortunately, we rarely design them with intention. I think it’s fair for you and your mentor to establish a set of agreements for your relationship: how often you meet up, how long meetings are, whether you send topics ahead of time, how you prefer to give/receive feedback, etc. With or without agreements in place, it’s still a good practice to check in on how both of you are experiencing the relationship and where there are opportunities for improvement. 

How should we structure mentoring sessions in order to take the most out of these meetings as a mentee?

Devin: Always come with a succinct agenda, not a long checklist of items. You want your time with your mentor to be about quality and depth of focus, not quantity and breadth of coverage. This is a great soft skill to build for yourself too; learning how to identify the highest points of leverage depending on where you want to grow and what you want to accomplish. 

Erika: Prepare 1-3 talking points. It could be things that trouble you, things you need advice on, or more task-oriented things such as looking over a report together. Sometimes it’s also worth talking over big picture ideas and thoughts. It doesn't have to be always centered around career paths; professional growth comes in many levels.

Having a mentor is such a big deal these days. Do you think everyone needs a dedicated mentor? Why do you say it's a myth? How can you experience the same thing when you don't have a mentor?

Paul: I would like to reinforce the idea that mentorship is important; it’s not a myth or a trend. However, not everyone has access to a dedicated mentor who has specific experience, skills, or knowledge. In these circumstances, you can look for mentorship among multiple people - in smaller moments like informal conversations, coffee chats, informational interviews, or single mentor chats (e.g., ADPlist). Regardless of your level of access, I love the idea of someone being exposed to multiple perspectives and ultimately integrating what works best for them. AND you never know whether one of those relationships will become a longer term or provide you opportunities in the future. 

For mentors, do you have any advice or best practices for companies setting up a mentorship program? How can companies pair the right folks with each other?

Devin: Start by understanding the skill levels and aspirations of your employees first. You want to build some form of talent database by understanding peoples’ super powers, as well as their kryptonite. This will enable you to then pair people up based on interests and skills exchange that will make for a mutually beneficial relationship. Also, don’t forget to provide clear starting points and suggestions for things like meeting cadence, respecting boundaries, and communications best practices. 

How did you know that you were ready to manage a team and/or start coaching and mentoring others?

Devin: I knew I was ready to manage a team when I began taking more pleasure from helping others improve and challenge themselves than I did doing the actual design or research work myself. My interests evolved from craft to people and from outputs to outcomes. 

Erika: I found myself repeating similar career advice and research best practices to different people. I think if those people can learn from it, then there must be more people who could benefit from me being a mentor and people manager. It's helpful for others if I have a more systematic and structured way to help.

Paul: This is a big question! To me, people management, coaching, and mentoring are all different - and can overlap. People management and professional coaching are potential career paths and they require you to develop skills to be effective and ethical.  In regard to mentoring, I believe that we can all play a role. I often hear, “I’d love to mentor when I have more experience.” The truth is that you may never feel “ready enough”, and there are plenty of people who could benefit from your experience now.

 For example, we all know of people who are just a little ahead of us in their career journeys - and perhaps they were just able to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. It’s likely that their perspectives and advice will be relevant to you. Similarly, there are many people who are trying to achieve what you have very recently achieved. Your perspectives and advice may be helpful to them. Why waste the opportunity to help others while you are trying to feel ready?

What are some frameworks to help the mentee articulate what they’re struggling with? Are there similar frameworks to help breakdown where you can add value as a mentor? 

Erika: I think research skills are really helpful here. Treating a conversation like an exploratory interview, asking probing questions, reflecting and repeating what they said to get them to expand on their feelings and needs.

Paul: I agree with Erika. I think it’s important to let your curiosity drive by asking open-ended questions that help a mentee expand their thinking. It can also be helpful to reflect back what you’re hearing (“What I hear you say is… ”) and noticing (“I noticed that you started speaking a lot faster. What are you currently experiencing?). 

Do you ever worry that you’re not being helpful to your mentee? What do you do in those situations?

Devin: All the time! Maybe it’s imposter syndrome, or perhaps it’s just me being paranoid. The simplest and most impactful thing to do is to ask your mentee if they’re still getting value from the relationship, if the feedback or resources you’re providing are resonating, and if there’s anything you can do more of or less of to show up better for them. Not all the advice we provide will land with our mentees, or work for their particular situation or style - and that’s okay! 

Having a direct conversation about this can be a great way to check in on the relationship itself, and may lead to you two mutually parting ways. It’s better to acknowledge when things aren’t working, or when value has run out and save each other time and space than to drag the relationship on. 

Erika: Yes. Having a conversation about the helpfulness of this mentorship is perhaps the best way to alleviate those feelings. It’s also very valuable to hear from them that what we discussed is helpful. I find it very rewarding to listen to their bing/small wins and feel that I’m part of their success stories. 

Paul: Yes, I am always curious whether a conversation or coaching session was helpful. It’s very enticing to get caught up in negative self-talk about how “unhelpful” I was - and I had to learn that it’s not my decision to determine that; it’s the other person’s decision. To get signal on what was actually useful, I often ask the question, “What are you taking away from our time together?” The answer often surprises me. Sometimes the most impactful takeaways are the ones I take for granted. 

Rachell Lee
Copywriter at Seamless.AI

Rachell is a SEO Copywriter at Seamless.AI and former Content Marketing Manager at User Interviews. Content writer. Marketing enthusiast. INFJ. Inspired by humans and their stories. She spends ridiculous amounts of time on Duolingo and cooking new recipes.

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