How Creative Mentoring Preps for Leading Teams

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After over ten years of working within design and strategy I did not feel ready to mentor others. It was only after a strategy community was looking for more female mentors that I stepped up. My expectations were neutral, but after a couple of sessions realised creative mentoring was a way to both reconnect with the community and prepare for leading distributed teams.

What we’ll cover:

As we move further and further away from the post-university or pre-professional days, our past career path looks easier. Not only that, but we assume - somehow - that opportunities are more abundant and networking easier. Professional progression has improved, however mentoring brought to light that some issues are persistent. We all still don’t know what we are doing most of the time, and job searching is still a pain.

A leader’s job includes both creating the path and leading the team. While we are doing these two big tasks, we can forget the personal struggles team members are feeling everyday. While mentoring, you are both guiding and reflecting. As we get better about communicating our careers to others, others are trying to figure out how to manoeuvre the professional world. We might have one team as a leader, but each is comprised of a range of different individuals.

Mentoring is a way to reconnect with individuals to understand the topics most significant to them. By doing this, you can address these 1:1 or with larger teams. As people, we want to impact society, find our purpose and participate in relevant communities. Some big ideas that along the way can feel too big. This is where 1:1 conversations help to break them down into realistic steps.

Creating spaces for honest conversations

When I was starting out, mentoring was more formal. Most mentorship opportunities were through work. As cool as this sounds, work mentorship programs made the experience feel formal and consequential. How can I be honest with someone desks away from my manager? It helps to speak with people outside of your organisation for both perspective and feeling less judged. I could only be so honest knowing they still worked with my team or stakeholders.

Anyone later in their career has a few strong memories of their early career and then a blurry recollection of the rest. By connecting with others, those feelings come back, especially as you watch someone process them in front of you. Work is so connected with life - from our own purpose to lifestyle options - that it’s impossible (yes, impossible) to isolate one from the other. When we are grappling with professional problems, we are also processing life’s problems.

There is a lot of professional advice out there, from blogs to webinars, articles to videos. Valuable information and different methodologies can be found in all of these channels. You would think, ‘all the information is available, what is a mentor for?’ I found some mentees asking foundational questions about portfolio, resume and training. With so much information out there, it helps to hear how someone else already applied and found success in a specific field. This is not only true for practical things, but how to manoeuvre a range of situations within a professional context.

Career trajectories are still confusing

If I look back to my twenty-year old self entering the workforce after studying in art school, a career felt confusing. School is about perfection within a very finite environment, while now I could literally go anywhere, do anything. There’s a lot to navigate - from salary negotiation to career progression. I like many people figured it out along the way. My conversations with many mentees revolve around how I got to where I am today. Looking back it had some sort of logic to it, but it was really about climbing one mountain to then see what was the next one to climb.

I met fascinating individuals with different career paths. Some were just starting out and others were pivoting careers later in life. When I say, ‘later in life’, it’s 40. Yes, 40. This is nothing compared to our lifespans, yet is still something you need to rationalise to others. I will never forget what this mentee said, ‘Why should I be penalised for knowing myself better?’ You realise everyone is feeling their way through their lifestyle, professional strengths and personal needs. It made me realise, and hope, teams will be more varied in terms of career trajectory. We should leverage those experiences versus try to explain them away.

We are all still scoping the landscape as we build our careers, but indeed the beginning feels far more overwhelming. For anyone out there, just know the start of your career is bound to be confusing, job searches painful and confidence low. No, it’s not just you. Like spicy food, some people can hide or tolerate the pain better. Without that external validation around your work and thought process, it can be difficult to know if you’re going in the right direction. You are going in the right direction, it just might be altered along the way as you learn from those successes and failures.

Collaborating and community finding

Collaboration sounds easy, and we ‘collaborate’ throughout our lives. When we were much younger, it was called play, working together or forming a group. If you have the right team members, it can be. But we collaborate professionally with or without the right team. Many times, there is no powerpoint or guide on how to collaborate with different functions. This was reflected in some of the questions I received. One was, ‘how do you brief or collaborate with creative teams as a strategist?’ This was a surprise. As a designer, I speak to designers like I would like to be spoken to. Without that experience, interacting with creatives could seem intimidating for a strategist.

As leaders, we need to help guide collaboration from all angles. This includes explaining what we do as a team to other functions, and informing our own team on how other functions operate. We know this in terms of bridging functions, but there are times we forget that individuals on our team might need advice on how to do this themselves. It helps them also feel more connected to an internal community and able to solve problems on their own.

This applies not only internally between teams, but also how to find our creative communities. I also received a number of questions around communities. This included where to find communities, both in the physical and digital world. Today, it seems like there is a community for everything. When trying to figure out my own career pivot, I joined multiple communities and meet-ups to see what felt right. For years I joined UX/UI and digital communities even before working in this industry. Communities have a profound effect on our careers, lives and the information we are exposed to.

What’s next after mentoring

After mentoring for multiple organisations I ask myself - what’s next? I believe there are other mentors to bring new perspectives and there must be bigger ways where I can impact the community. My goal is to use these learnings more within my leadership roles and to join more committees dedicated to improving the employee experience. Change happens from all angles, and it might be time to make lives better by improving their environment.

Let’s summarise

  • Mentoring brings to light that some issues are persistent within life and careers
  • As people, we want to impact society, find our purpose and participate in relevant communities
  • Creating safe spaces for honest conversations is the first step
  • Navigating careers can be confusing and everyone’s path is different
  • Enabling collaboration and community finding is important as a leader