This is a joint post with Claire Banks about a mentoring experiment we conducted for six months last year. We describe how it started, how we organised it, how it went, why we stopped, and how we feel about it now.
Claire: I’ve been testing for more years than I care to remember. I am one of many that ‘fell into testing’ around the time of the hyped Y2K bug. I have held a variety of roles from being a test team member through to manager at numerous different companies and industries over the last 19 years.
Given this wealth of experience, why on earth would I want someone I can talk things through with and seek advice from? Surely I should know it all? Well, no. I don’t know it all and never will. Plus I have a confidence issue.
At CEWT #4 I presented on why I would never be a test manager again. I reflected back on my career and was struck by the realisation that I’d had:
- 16 years in testing
- 12 different companies
- 25 test managers
- 3 great test managers
WOW! Only three test managers that I had felt inspired by? F*ck!!
The very next day, and I really do mean the very next day, I had a 1:1 with my test manager, the greatest I have encountered to date. I was asked if I would consider being a manager, and given lots of reasons why the company felt I was the one they wanted.
I spent some time considering it, reminding them of the presentation I had just done and discussing my doubts. I shared my fear of failing, of being one of the bad managers that drives people to unhappiness and ultimately resignation.
I eventually agreed to give it a go. Then panicked. Then along came James riding in on a white horse to save me … OK so maybe not the white horse or the saving part.
I encountered James at the local testing meetups where we would chat about testing. I started to follow him on Twitter, read his blog posts, and attend his presentations. I felt inspired: he likes to challenge ideas and try out new approaches.
Some members of James’ team also attended the meetups and I would observe their interactions. This confirmed to me that I’d quite like James to be my boss! I got a genuine sense of respect, support and encouragement, basically great camaraderie that went both ways.
I figured that James must be a decent person. If he wasn’t going to be my boss then I decided he would be my mentor, in a stealthy way without declaring my intention. We met a couple of times over coffee and I picked his brains.
On the second occasion, over coffee and the world's rudest plant (see the picture up top), we ended up agreeing to trial a mentor-mentee experiment. I think we did really well to get to that point. I was making a conscious effort not to look at the plant, which of course meant I spent most of the time staring at it in absolute awe, imagination running wild, mostly distracted from the purpose of our meeting.
James: Claire was starting a new managerial role and looking for some advice. We already knew each other from local meetups and CEWT so Claire had some idea about where I was coming from. I can sum it up in a handful of principles:
- Be congruent: consider the other person, the context, and yourself
- Be MOI: provide motivation, organisation, innovation (and the occasional jiggle)
- Be clear and present: as open with information and as available as possible
Michael Lopp, who writes as Rands, is a technical manager that I have a great deal of time for. He sums his philosophy up even more tightly: don’t be a prick:
My definition of a great manager is someone that you can make a connection with no matter where you sit in the organization chart. What exactly I mean by connection varies wildly by who you are and want you want and, yes, that means great managers have to work terribly hard to see the subtle differences in each of the people [who] work for them.I don’t want to be a prick, and it was clear that Claire didn’t either. I shared some experiences and perspectives and, as I’d been reading a lot around coaching, mentoring, and line management, a few references that had been useful to me.
Towards the end of the conversation we sort of slid into negotiating a mentoring arrangement. Claire says she had this as an aim all along, but I don’t recall that I took much persuading and I’m certain I didn’t have a white horse. I do recall the plant being a major distraction.
We’re entering into a mentor-mentee (James-Claire) relationship on a trial basis for 6 months. At that point we’ll review whether we want to continue.
Although we use the terms “mentor” and “mentee” we don’t have specific definitions in mind, and will accept what others might term coaching, teaching, mentoring etc as we feel is most suitable and acceptable at any given time.
It’s important to emphasise that
- Claire remains totally in control of, and responsible for, her actions. She can choose to adopt, tweak, reject, or otherwise anything that James says.
- James will not judge Claire for what she does with anything he says.
If either of us decides it’s not working for us before the 6 month trial period ends, we can just stop it.
We commit to a 30 minute monthly meeting where Claire brings topics.
The content of all discussions are confidential except for explicitly agreed exceptions.
There is no need to provide an agenda beforehand.
If an agenda is provided beforehand there’s no requirement on James to have prepared.
We are open to receive feedback on any aspect of this process at any time.
We are open to give feedback on any aspect of this process at any time.
We accept that all feedback given will be given with good intent. We will strive to receive all feedback in that spirit.
James: I’ve mentioned already that openness is important to me and it was my proposal that we put down in writing what it was that we thought we were agreeing to. Reading it back now, it’s an interesting mix of what we’re committed to, for how long, how we could get out of that commitment easily, thoughts about observing and refining our interactions: elements of flexibility and safety for us both.
Claire: I didn’t really know what to expect from this. Looking back, the idea James had to capture a jointly-agreed framework was very useful. My thoughts and approaches can be rather unstructured at times, so setting mutually-agreed ground rules helped me focus my time in preparing for our sessions. I also liked that we could end it at any point with no hard feelings.
I didn’t go into this thinking it was all about me, but upfront I didn’t really appreciate how it could impact James nor the sense of responsibility he felt.
Claire: My spidey sense tells me that James is one of the good guys who has no ulterior motive for helping me out. I was trying to be stealthy in viewing James as a mentor during a previous chat, without actually telling him, so having James agree to do this is fabulous. I am going through some changes in work, therefore I would like to talk through any issues and receive guidance as applicable, via a non-work-related medium.
James: Because Claire asked. Because I like her and am keen to help her (and other people). Because I haven’t done this before and I enjoy trying new things. Because it doesn’t cost me much. Because I might learn something about myself, and how I work.
Claire: Stepping into the world of management yet again, I wanted to build a support network for the new challenges I would face and very much wanted James to be part of that. I had the support of my two prior managers but felt that as we were all at the same company, any advice would be skewed towards what is best for the company, not necessarily what is best for me, as a person. I felt James would be perfect in that sense as his only interest was me.
James: Pretty much all of my working experience has been at Linguamatics in a context that I helped to create. I’m not sure I’d ever knowingly met a software tester when I started the Test team there. Amongst the reasons that I appreciate the local and wider testing communities are that I can take ideas from them and that I can test my ideas and experiences against them.
Claire says my only interest was her and it’s true that helping her was a strong motivation for me. However, this experiment was also a chance to see how well approaches that I’d evolved at work could generalise to someone that I had less knowledge of, in a context I had only a restricted view of, and no way of influencing.
James: Success will be that Claire has got net value from it, and can tell me what that value is. I’d like to have learned something about myself, and find that we haven’t fallen out.
Claire: Opening myself up which I don’t find easy, to someone I don’t really know but instinctively trust. To better equip myself to deal with situations. At the end of this I would like to feel more confident about tackling issues instead of running away and also learn more about myself.
James: In hindsight I like that my first measure of success is success for Claire, and that the second is that I can understand what she thinks constitutes that success. The most important thing really is her, but I want to get something for me too, something that will help me to see how the actions I took had some effect, which might help me to choose those actions, or some others, in future.
Claire: As time went on I found it easier to open up to James. This is most likely due to feeling that I knew him better and growing in trust.
I have learnt the following about myself:
- Recognising a destructive behavioral trait. When I encounter something new I automatically put up barriers to failure. If I then think I can't do what is required I find myself lost in negativity. The effort to overcome this is hard, I don't tend to enjoy the experience and it probably takes longer to accomplish the task in hand.
- I am listening more, asking more questions and challenging statements in others. This has proved quite effective in uncovering underlying issues that aren't being said that can then be addressed.
An unexpected bonus is that I’ve had a positive effect on other people. I was hoping that I would learn new ways to respond to situations, but didn't consider how my behaviour towards others helped them feel positive, empowered even, when tackling their own problems. Being told by someone that I have really helped them gives me face ache from all the smiling I do.
James: I have a few fears: I give some advice that’s taken but that turns out bad; I come across as patronising; I lose Claire’s friendship; I have nothing to give when Claire has a really pressing need.
Claire: I fear James thinking I’m stupid, immature and that I must be a rubbish tester based on the situations I will seek advice for. I fear opening up and being completely honest, but I have to do this to benefit. I may come across as whiny and needy. I may not have anything to discuss.
After two or three meetings, we added another monthly strand specifically on reflection, interleaved with the original strand, so that we were meeting every couple of weeks:
The reflection meetings have a specific requirement: Claire brings with her, written down (so that she is forced to think it out), thoughts on what we said two weeks before:
- the problem
- what changes you made (or deliberately didn't)
- what outcomes you observed
- how you feel about it.
Claire: Very early on, James let me know that it would be OK if I emailed him with any issues in between our scheduled meetups. I decided against doing this as I wanted to stick to our agreed schedule and not become a drain on his time.
I prefer to look at people when I’m talking to them. I felt that walking side by side didn’t allow me to do this as I was focusing on the pavement in front, checking for trip hazards and poop. I was on the verge of suggesting we stop walking and sit and chat over coffee before realising that being static and having more intense eye contact would probably make me feel uncomfortable. I gave James feedback on this about half way through but decided against suggesting we reconsider it, so we continued with the walk and talk approach.
James: One of the fears that I mentioned was coming across as patronising, but with hindsight I could have generalised that to any number of traits that I might, after Rands, summarise as being a prick: things like not listening, not adjusting to Claire’s context, not caring, monopolising, mansplaining, gaslighting, not adjusting to Claire’s mood or other signals.
I am sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, to this kind of thing. Those who’ve worked for me may not see it this way, but I strive to be careful about when I give advice, particularly unbidden.
We discussed whether we wanted to carry on. Claire was concerned that she wouldn’t have enough to ask about in future so we’ve agreed to stop regular meetings and instead have on-request ad-hoc ones whenever Claire wants them.
James: As it happened, we didn’t have any more mentoring meetings. I had wondered a little selfishly whether I might get some kind of ego deflation and find stopping difficult. Perhaps I would worry that there was something I should have done differently, that would have made my advice strong enough that Claire wanted to carry on.
In the event, I found that I was able to let it go easily. Our initial agreement was clear that Claire was in control of what she did with the advice, and that must include not wanting it at all. I liked that we left the door open to continue, though.
Claire: I felt relief once we had concluded our last scheduled meetup. This wasn’t a reflection on my time with James and I left the door to continue ajar. I was running on empty. I had been quite unhappy for a while and hadn’t shared the depth of feeling with James. I was figuring out what changes I should make and looking towards a new path. Therefore, it seemed to me I had reached a natural end that fulfilled our agreement.
I was confident James would be there when I was ready to re-open the door. Which I have subsequently found out he is :-)
Overall, I found the sessions very helpful, especially as James had no personal or work gain that may have influenced his support. I came away each time feeling better about a situation, either in terms of having reading material recommended or having James question/challenge some aspect of my issue that made me think about it in a different way.
I had slight difficulties throughout with regard to balancing the amount of information I could give. I had to ensure I wasn’t compromising anything confidential in relation to the company or individuals that James may know from the local tester meetups.
Presenting my problems was difficult the first couple of times as I was convincing myself that James would think I was a testing fraud. I have enormous respect for him and wanted to portray myself in a certain light. I soon stopped worrying about this, but did remain conscious throughout the remainder of our time that I was being overly negative. But then I figured if I was so awful he’d stop meeting up with me :-)
After one session where I had talked about a particularly difficult task I felt I had performed poorly on, James emailed me to say well done and that I should feel good about what happened. That was unexpected and made me feel good about what had happened.
Adding in the reflections part was a good idea as it made me think about the choices I did or didn’t make and the reasons for those decisions. It's a pity this wasn’t included from the outset. What a marvellous thing hindsight is.
James never gave me confirmation in anyway that my fears had come true. However, I still inwardly chuckle at a comment he made towards the end of our time. I find it rather hilarious and it went something like this:
James: You should consider taking on three new mentors.
Claire: (Pondering over the significance of three) Why's that?
James: Because you need a lot of help!!!
Here’s my thoughts on attributes to look for when considering choosing a mentor, in no particular order:
- Honest - someone who will tell you if you're being a prick.
- Asker - someone curious to question and tease out what isn't being said.
- Relevant - someone experienced in the same area.
- Listening - an active listener who can summarise their understanding.
- Objective - has no real stake in anything other than you.
- Trust - someone you can feel safe, comfortable and vulnerable with.
- Steer - to be guided by, rather than dictated to.
Reading it back, I like our initial agreement very much. We didn’t change the basic terms of it at all, only adding things that we thought could be useful as we went. Time was a major constraint on us both, so we arranged for the collaboration to not take much time. It’s interesting that the shape of the agreement reflects that without ever making it explicit.
In fact, this was an extremely cheap experiment for me: we met for 30 minutes once or twice a month while walking around the Cambridge Science Park. I do that walk most days after eating my dinner anyway, so I didn’t have to find a new time slot. Beyond looking up references for stuff I had recommended, there was little or nothing to do between times.
This lack of effort shouldn’t be taken as lack of commitment. I want Claire to succeed and I was focussed on her for the entirety of the time we spent together. But from a practical side, we both had to fit this in around our working and private lives, and we showed ourselves that we can get benefit from a small investment like this.
I am an inveterate note-taker, but I deliberately didn’t take any notes about my meetings with Claire. Why? Several reasons, of which the first is time: I was trying to squeeze my commitment down to the least possible while still being valuable. The second is confidentiality: no record means less likelihood of an accidental leak.
The final reason is that it challenges me; notes are a safety net of sorts and without them I have to either find a way to remember or accept that I am likely to forget details, and that that might be exposed. In this relationship, the mostly episodic nature of the questions meant that keeping a running context wasn’t so important and so no notes (until now, trying to remember details about what we did) wasn’t an issue.
Claire liked the reflection meetings, and I did too. A couple of weeks proved to be a good length of time for keeping the advice in mind, deciding how to act, and seeing some results of that action. Even here I found that my lack of notes wasn’t too important as Claire generally needed to summarise the problem before explaining her approach to it.
My fears never really came to pass: I was worried that we might fall out and we didn’t. I also don't recall not having something to say when asked. I did frequently have concern that what I was saying wouldn’t be relevant to Claire: she has mentioned her tendency to negativity, and it can be hard to make suggestions to someone who, in the moment, is prone to reject. I found that the assertiveness training I’ve had was useful here.
Claire suggested early on that we might blog or talk about what we were doing and we sketched out some terms for it, as you’d expect. Writing is my favourite way to reflect, but reflecting in writing in tandem has been particularly interesting.
We’re working in a shared Google doc and are having side conversations in chat about the content as we go along. Claire has said things in here that I didn’t know until now, for example that she held back her depth of feeling about her position and that was part of finishing the experiment for her. I would definitely consider writing a joint document as a debriefing tool in future.
Claire: This has been a positive experience for me and I’m glad we did it. I actually can’t remember if I ever thanked James. I’m sure I must have, I am overly polite... but... THANK YOU!
I feel I have gained a friend. James has been a good mentor for my special brand of crazy. For all the reasons above and probably additional ones that I’ll think of as soon as this blog post is published.
A small, personal measure of success for me is that it’s been about one year since my transition to management and no one on my team has quit. Whilst I don’t conclude that alone should grant me access to the elusive Good Managers Club, I’d like to think I haven’t been awful and screwed up anyone.
I’m a big fan of lists, rules and order so having the agreement upfront meant I knew what the parameters were and could play safely around within these.
As this has been a positive experience for me I feel that I would like to give something back. I don’t have the confidence to offer my services as a mentor for anyone though, heck, I don’t even have the confidence to attend the Cambridge Software Testing Clinic as a mentor! I guess for now I’ll just offer my services as and when requested by my colleagues and see where that goes.
James: In mentoring Claire I was hoping to learn something about myself and in particular about whether my experience, thoughts, and advice could travel well outside of my own context.
I’m happy from Claire’s reactions that they can, although I’ve done enough of this kind of thing with enough people now to know that what works today might not work tomorrow and that what works for Bill might not work for Betty. If there are meta rules that I’m following they probably run something like this:
- Frame suggestions as experiments.
- Explain that you are experimenting.
- Explain why you are experimenting.
How might that look in real life? Maybe along these lines: I don’t have a good answer but, in a similar situation a few years ago, I tried solution X with someone else. It worked out well for them, and it seems possible it could fix the problem Y you’re describing. How would you feel about trying it for a couple of weeks and then reviewing?
I’m happy that the personal management principles that I outlined at the top were useful in this mentoring relationship. They are heavily influenced by Jerry Weinberg’s thoughts on management and have been instrumental in guiding how I behave at work.
I found that I was taking things from work to try with Claire, and vice versa. For example asking “would you like questions or suggestions?” as a kind of short-cut to coaching or mentoring approaches. It was great to be able to exercise this kind of stuff with someone who is not in a formal working relationship with me — particularly one in which there is a hierarchical element — and who has no reason not to tell me to shut up or get lost if what I’m saying makes no sense to them.
Claire has complimented me a few times in this post, and I’d like to say something back: it was extremely brave of her to ask for help, particularly knowing how exposed it would make her feel. I may have offered thoughts, but all of the actions that motivated the positive results she describes here were hers.
Claire and James: We were both clear that we didn't want to be pricks and, thankfully, the closest we came to a prick during the entire experiment was that plant on the table right at the beginning.