Coach Your Coaches

Some years back, I joined a company and started managing a few new teams. One of these teams consisted of two experienced engineers and two recently hired junior engineers. The new hires were, reasonably enough, being mentored by the more experienced folks.

While getting to know my engineers, I heard that the junior guys were not performing up to standard. They were missing meetings, leaving the office early, not writing adequate tests for their code, and causing build problems.

I set up separate meetings with the mentors to get the complete story. The feedback was the same: the new engineer was not meeting expectations. To my surprise, in both meetings the mentor said something along the lines of “I probably should have let him know that he was not performing well.”

Well, of course! Ensuring that a new hire understands company systems and receives timely, accurate feedback is the essence of mentoring—particularly with junior engineers, who may not have a wealth of experience to fall back upon.

Some organizations don’t bother with mentors, leaving new folks to either “sink or swim”. I don’t believe in that strategy. Instead, I believe in the use of strong mentors who can significantly increase the rate at which new employees, particularly junior ones, begin to successfully contribute. The key point is to have strong mentors. Most folks who take on mentorship roles know at least vaguely what they are expected to do, but these expectations need to be completely clear. In the situation I inherited, the senior engineers were taking on mentor roles for the first time and had not been trained.

You need to coach your coaches.

• Ensure that the people who are joining a mentoring (or any coaching/leadership) program want to, and can, do the work. Don’t randomly assign folks and assume it will work out.

• Set aside time to give live assistance and practice. Documentation is a great addition, but not enough by itself.

• Clearly specify the responsibilities of your mentors and coaches. There should be no question about what they should do and how they should do it.

• Your mentors must be able to provide clear, direct feedback in a positive fashion. This is a challenge for many engineers, so spend time on this skill, until your mentors are proficient and feel comfortable.

• Have experienced, successful mentors coach the new mentors. Ensure that they are available for new mentors to turn to when questions arise.

• Follow up and evaluate the mentoring work to see who is doing well, who needs help, and who might not be a good fit for a mentoring role.

While mentors are often assigned for new employees, consider setting up mentoring networks for other key transitions at the company. For example, when engineers first move to lead or management roles, they can adapt more rapidly to their new responsibilities if they have a mentor to assist them.

A good mentoring process will be self-sustaining. Engineers who have received help from effective mentors will learn from them and appreciate the mentoring role. They will, in turn, be receptive to becoming mentors when they are ready.

Back at that company: With clear expectations, feedback, and assistance from a senior engineer, one of the junior engineers was able to rapidly improve his performance. We were unsuccessful with the other engineer and eventually let him go.  I reflect on this and wonder if we might have brought his performance to a sufficient level had our mentors been coached in their roles from the beginning.