“Should I always have a mentor?”
Absolutely. Career management is needed for all levels because seeing the path of others before you helps set your journey. Mentorship has shaped much of my career in very positive ways, and can do the same for you.
I am lucky enough to count experienced professionals as mentors and as friends. They have different experiences that far exceed what I have seen in my career, and more importantly, they care about me as a person. They care whether or not I’m successful and align their advice to my goals. They are authentic about my pursuits and are willing to refer me to opportunities that reflect my interests in skills.
They also give me honest feedback even if I’m not ready to hear it.
These professionals all have perspectives that are highly varied and valued. Sometimes they ask for mine, which generates other conversations that have been valuable in my professional career, and sometimes my perspective helps set their career context. They also listen more and let me figure out what my path should be without being judgemental.
I have also paid for executive coaching – hiring two people, one in the domain and one outside of user experience, and both were well worth the money and time spent going through the program. (And it wasn’t a $100 class or a meeting outside of something like General Assembly). I highly recommend that you do the same.
Each experience was valuable and I have cherished the conversations that I’ve had, even if I didn’t agree with the feedback or stored it for a later date.
It’s up to you to decide what is valuable and what is not.
One of my bosses gave me this piece of wisdom: “It’s up to you to listen and evaluate the tradeoffs of my advice. You can decide to listen or not listen, but you have to choose based on your context.”
The goal of this article is to give you a single person’s advice on selecting better mentors for your career, avoiding the snake oil vendors in our field.
Research Their Track Record
It’s easier to state the red flags. Here are some of them:
Managers and designers that move around. A big red flag for me are people that can’t stay at an organization for longer than two years. It’s fine to have a job or two that doesn’t go long because you aren’t set up for success, but the reality is you want advice from those who have experienced organizations and have managed to work. I don’t trust advice from people whose greatest assets are interviewing and having connections in a company, but don’t have staying power. I hope you consider the same.
Professionals that spend more time on their social media presence rather than designing. If they are advertising outward how awesome they are, they are not building relationships and influencing their own organizations.
Designers that talk about their FAANG experience too much. FAANG Positions are some of the most prized jobs in UX and can offer a good perspective. However, there are many designers that are doing great work at other organizations and that have been successful. They are worth listening to as much as a designer that is working at Facebook and has accomplished no more than redesigning a button.
Validation from design forums that do not match their resume. That isn’t of value, because design and user experience is a field where the networking only proves they have drunk at a bar. The best validation is from people that have actually worked with them in action in a real work environment. As I have told some of my designer friends; outside of a portfolio presentation, neither has much experience working in the same environment. This is even more applicable for those that have managed to network their way to these organizations.
The best mentors are sometimes the most boring on social media. They manage teams, stay within their lane, and provide quiet yet powerful advice to their mentees because it is not about their brand or bank account. They don’t crow about how successful their subjects are. They take joy in providing advice and building community without worrying about the future payoff and if the check is in the mail.
Find Someone Who Isn’t Your Boss
This is the first piece of advice I’ve given my direct reports about career growth: Find someone who isn’t me to get another perspective on the user experience field.
My motivations as a leader will always be about growing user experience as a company investment. The advice I give a fair amount the time is also what is best for my organization. More often than not my lens will be what meets both of our goals for the next few months (or a year out), and will align my 1:1’s with that designer so we can meet organizational and growth goals.
Additionally, I am a single data point and a biased one at that. More data points are always better, and having perspective outside your direct organization is always important.
This mentor can be a designer or even someone in another role within your company — that alone would be gold because they know the organization — but at the very least they should be someone with similar experience and context so they can give empathetic and compassionate advice, even if they haven’t been there.
There is one danger about talking to someone in your organization; they might be competing for your next job. You will have to judge for yourself if they are trustworthy.
No matter what, professionals without a vested interest other than seeing you do well will be able to keep a clear head and can ask about what your values, beliefs and goals are, and ask if their current situation will align with them.
For most mentors, your success is their success.
Prioritize Orthogonal Domain Experience
It’s great to get advice from Design Twitter because some know what works. There are some very experienced voices worth listening to, and some of the best knowledge comes with a well-researched perspective. However, they are a voice and a data point in the industry and have a very particular and sometimes inadequately tinted lens.
I look to other fields for a different but related perspective, I count technology leaders, product and program management experts, and marketing professionals as part of my network to receive feedback. For years I talked to recruiters about hiring practices, and other more senior leaders about effective leadership techniques. I have also talked about career positioning with marketers.
The singular lens of User Experience has never been the sole guiding light of my career. User Experience at best acts as a matrixed skill in the organizations I work in It is at its worst as a service. I believe that having empathy for different roles and knowing how to communicate with them is very important to success as a leader. Such a perspective is one you should strongly consider.
Consider Different Levels Of Experience
Within user experience, my “mentorship” partners are in positions anywhere from junior designers, to executives that run their own companies.
Each of them has provided solid feedback from their viewpoints. What I liked about that approach is this; I could ask them the same question, and get a different answer from their own lens within their greater career journey. For example, what a junior designer may consider effective leadership is different from someone at an executive level, and I could learn from each to craft my own management style.
In the same way user experience professionals approach different personas for testing a concept to cover the largest audience, the same approach should be done for your career. Consider as many perspectives in your field as possible before deciding on an approach.
Last year I had several conversations with another Director of User Experience at a startup and no matter what, I said he needed to talk to other people about what he should do because I was a singular data point with a perspective much different than others.
Other data points are very important because we all have different experiences.
Discuss Needs Before Paying For Advice
Transparently, I have charged for mentorship in the past, mainly because I was getting so many requests and my time was limited. During the pandemic, teaching in General Assembly plus working a specific career caused burnout, so I have decided to go a different route. I decided to limit my mentorship to a few select people, and I am enjoying it much more.
Thankfully, others have taken up the slack in a field that quite honestly needs more mentors.
There are many — and I mean many — user experience professionals right now offering advice on all kinds of things from portfolio development to career guidance. Some of them are good, some of them not, but a lot are trying to monetize the field in a way that needs to happen. We have to transition from an altruistic field to a professional organization, and this is one way of doing it, even if there isn’t much quality control.
The free advice before you even sign on the dotted line for more than $100? Do your research. Figure out your goals. That can be done for free before laying out any money.
Performing research is not about asking them if they have been successful mentoring designers, but asking the designers who have been mentored themselves. There should be a good track record of these mentors leading their designer to a successful outcome, complete with before and after results.
Both of my executive coaches spent considerable time discussing my professional goals and trajectories before accepting payment.
For one-on-one toaching, this is absolutely essential in deciding if their services are aligned with your needs.
Resources Worth Looking At
I haven’t gone through the below programs myself, and the coaches I did have are far beyond the price point of this audience. However, this is a good place to get started.
- Sarah Doody — Sarah is a good foundational starting point to move your career forward. She has a true track record, and some of the designers I’ve talked with have said her programs, while not personalized, are fantastic from a baseline.
- ADPList — This is very much “your mileage may vary,” but many of the professionals here — especially those who aren’t charging — have their hearts in the right place. You can play the field before finding the right mentor to build a relationship with. You can slice and dice the list to fit your needs.
- Local Meetups — This is back to design Twitter. Some good people there, but the best people to get mentorship are local to you. You’ll be able to meet them in person and judge if they are authentic.
- One of the best I’ve seen is Ladies That UX. They’re truly trying to grow and support the field without worrying about building their brand. That’s awesome, and they have local chapters.
- A Letter to the Newly Minted Designer. Christina Wodtke wrote this back in the day, and I still reference it. There are some wonderful pieces of advice i.e. “This is incredibly useful because companies vary in ways you cannot imagine.” That article still holds true in a world where UX is mostly product and not consulting.
And about the others? I won’t list them by name, but if you want my take on people you’re talking to, reach out. I’m always willing to give an authentic answer, even if you might not like it.