Mentors, coaches and sponsors: how to find the right guide for your design career

coaching May 28, 2019

New experience design practitioners are often looking for someone who can guide them through their early years in the industry. Even people who have established careers can still benefit from another experienced perspective to help grow their careers and advance in the right direction.

New practitioners seek a mentor because they don't know what they don't know about our industry. Often they are looking for someone who can help them connect with the industry in a deeper way, whether that’s by providing advice on some of the first steps to take in their new career, or it could be for the connections that the mentor could offer. And sometimes people want help with really hands-on stuff, like how to best position yourself for different kinds of roles.

It's important to make a distinction between the three different types of people who can help your career get underway: a sponsor, a mentor and a coach.

A sponsor is someone who will help you grow your career by using their own networks and influence. For example, perhaps you are studying at a design bootcamp and you develop a bond with the teacher who is well connected in the industry. The teacher might take you under their wing and use their connections to put you forward for different kinds of opportunities. Perhaps they have a colleague or friend who is looking for an entry-level designer; a sponsor would recommend you for the role and help propel your career.

Mentors are a little different. A mentor gives you the benefit of their experience on challenges that you might be facing.

Mentorships are highly sought in our industry because experience design is “bottom-heavy” with junior designers - there are far fewer senior practitioners who have been in the trenches for a long time than there are junior practitioners who are starting out. This imbalance means there's a really heavy demand on experienced practitioners to provide the benefit of their experience to people who are new to the industry.

There are a few things to think about if you've identified someone who you want to be your mentor. First, think about that person and their own experience of the mentorship process. Typically these people are in very high demand; they could be delivering work in a senior role and they might not have a lot of spare time, so putting a lot of demands on a mentor is a quick way to end the relationship.

A mentor will likely derive satisfaction from using their experience to help another person and they’ll probably get a kick out of hearing how you have used their guidance. It can be very frustrating for a mentor to have a mentee who never takes their advice, or who uses up a lot of time and doesn't act on their suggestions. The mentor will probably start thinking about the other people that they could be helping to grow.

Senior practitioners usually have a strong sense of wanting to give back to the field, and we're all very keenly aware that there are a lot of juniors who need help. We know that the rapid growth of our industry comes with a lot of risk, and if we don't invest back into our juniors then we'll end up with an industry full of people who aren't delivering the quality of work that they could be.

“Don’t ask me for a coffee to pick my brain”

When approaching a mentor be very clear about what you want help with. The last thing you want to do is invite them for a coffee to “pick their brain”. It’s a sure sign that the mentee hasn’t done any intellectual legwork when it comes to defining the problems they are facing.

A better approach is to contact someone with a crisp, clear question that they can easily answer with minimal time investment. This shows that you are respecting the mentor’s time by not requesting they meet in person with you, and you are not asking for any major time commitment.

This is a good way of establishing a relationship with someone that could lead to a strong in-person mentoring relationship later. And of course, always respond with a thank you and show them how their advice has helped you. Perhaps after a few weeks you can follow up and let them know how you used their their advice in an interview, or however you applied it. This shows the mentor that there's a benefit to helping you, and that you're willing to listen and apply their advice.

Coaching relationships are different again. Coaching is usually a hands-on approach in which you work towards specific goals. Coaching is more time intensive, and is usually a fee-for-service arrangement. A good coach will be able to help you determine your goals and develop a plan for achieving them.

Look for a coach who understand the context of your industry. For example, I’m a coach, specialising in helping people with HCD careers. My coachees are typically people who are switching careers and want to establish themselves in UX or service design. I also coach HCD practitioners who are mid career or further, who might need some guidance on career challenges from someone who understands the design world.

Typically, the first step is to understand the coachee’s challenge and codesign a plan in a very hands-on tactical way. A good coach will help you get where you want to go faster than you could alone.

A coach who understands your industry should be able to help you identify skills gaps and work out how you can fill them. They should be able to help you develop a plan to network effectively, and build your personal brand within the industry you want to join. A lot of clients come to me with CVs/resumes that have been written by a generic resume writer, and they're just not going to hit the mark for a HCD role. These people are so frustrated because they have spent a lot of money on resumes that are never going to achieve their intended purpose, simply because the resume writer doesn't understand the nuances of the design industry.

Sponsors, mentors and coaches can all help you achieve in different ways. If you’re looking for help entering the experience design industry, think about what kind of guide will be the right fit for you.

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