Muscle Memory for Management with Mentoring


For just over a year now, I have been involved with Plato as a mentor.  If you don’t know, Plato is a subscription platform that links engineering managers to mentors.  As a Mentee, you sign up for unlimited mentoring sessions and access to a Slack channel.   As a Mentor, you make yourself available for one or two 30 minutes slots per week.  Plato’s system allows Mentees to connect with Mentors who are likely able to provide insight or guidance on their particular leadership problems.

I’ve been asked by a few people regarding the lack of symmetry between the Mentee, Mentor, and Plato.  I’ve thought about this quite a lot to ensure I have a mental model for the collective benefit 3 parties get.   Clearly, for the Mentee and Plato relationship is clear.  Plato provides access to Mentors, and the Mentee (or Mentee’s company) pays for the privilege, fairly simple charge for facilitation.

What about the Mentor?  On the surface, the Mentor receives no direct monetary reward, they have the opportunity to expand their network through Plato’s networking events.  Plato obviously receives access to the top tier of engineering leadership all quite happy to provide time to the paid Mentees.  On the surface, the Mentor receives very little as part of this relationship.

Why have a Mentor?

Personally, I moved through most of my career without what I would call a strong mentor or coach.  My lessons were learned the hard way, and I apologize in retrospect to those employees who helped me shape my management views and understanding of how business works.  As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve become a more experienced manager, I’ve come to strongly support coaching and mentoring.  It’s a way to help avoid some of the leadership potholes that as humans, we are prone to stumble into again and again.  Guidance or advice at just the right the time can help immensely.

I strongly recommend that people find Mentors to help navigate their career.   Even if you are a naturally introverted person, you should still look to find a Mentor, it’s hard, it’s awkward, but it is still valuable.

One comment I’ve heard from a couple of Mentee is that they are ultimately concerned that they will be imposing on the time or advise of the Mentor.  Generally Mentors see Mentoring as a professional gift to the industry.  Assuming a formal or semi-formal Mentoring relationship, unless you have an agreed cadence of communication, contacting them once or twice a month is likely what is expected by being a Mentor.  Most Mentors are senior professionals, they will know how to ask you to back off.

Why Mentor?

As a Mentor, I have the opportunity to pass my experiences forward.  I can see new engineering managers making the same mistakes that I made, bringing forward the same assumptions.  Finding small ways that I can help the engineering management community not re-learn the lessons the hard way.

Why do I Mentor through Plato?  

Plato provides a very interesting value proposition for a Mentor.  I personally have 1 mentoring session each week, with a monthly panel mentoring session.  So I’m working with about 7 Mentees each month.  Each of these Mentees is at the point where they are having a particular problem that they want or need to solve, and so they are real problems needing real advice and guidance.

This speed-dating approach to mentoring actually has some interesting benefits for the Mentor.  The biggest benefit that I get is the need to think through rapid-fire management scenarios during the 30 minutes, typically 2-3 topics are discussed in each session.  This type of mental engagement and scenario practice would typically take months of real-world management to experience.

Muscle Memory and Tuning Judgement

Like any skill, practice makes perfect.  When a martial artist practices moves and scenarios over and over, they are training their subconscious to recognize the scenario and automatically respond in a practiced way.  Similar near automatic or intuitive judgment comes to others like chess masters who can see a layout of chess pieces on a board and have a good idea about the state of the board and likely good moves that can follow.  Grandmasters can usually detect how close to an end-game the board is.

What appears as expert intuition, can usually be attributed to gut feel, but rather practiced judgment.  This practiced judgment comes from automatically recognizing a scenario and automatically knowing sensible next steps. The more experience you get, the better your recognition of a scenario, and the better you are able to respond.

Managers go through a similar process.  A manager either needs to have a large amount of experience, or have a way of mentally exercising these scenarios again and again.  In the real world, a manager deals with their staff with issues coming up a few times a week and needing months to resolve.

When mentoring, a Mentor is able to quickly go through the larger number of these scenarios at a rate faster than they would experience in their normal professional life.  This helps train the practiced judgement, making the manager more effective and faster on their feet.

But be Aware of Bias

A highly self-confident Mentor, can train poor judgment in the same way.  If a Mentor isn’t careful, their responses to the Mentee’s problems can drift from what works well for the Mentee to what is simply trained into the Mentor’s mental model.  This is where both the Mentee and Mentor have some responsibility.

The Mentee’s first responsibility is to take the advice, as a well-intentioned response to the scenario presented.  The Mentee must integrate the advice into their real world scenario and take actions as appropriate.  Each Mentor’s solution may be only a partial solution to the Mentor’s problem.

The Mentor’s responsibility is to both appraise the scenario and determine what they might do in that situation.  The appriasal stage is the most critical.  A Mentor that doesn’t adapt to the Mentee’s actual sitation may end up pushing the Mentee down the knife edge that represents the Mentor’s history.   Hoping that you can take the same life steps of your favorite artist and repeat their results, is folly.  The linear path that their life has taken also down a knife edge.  Any variance, be it a chance meeting or a different decision and the path is different.

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