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Motivation and mentorship

In Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys he laments the lack of structured mentorship in modern society – “Mentoring today is mostly unplanned and piecemeal, and lots of young men don’t receive any mentoring at all. Those doing the mentoring – sports coaches, uncles, teachers, and bosses – rarely understand their role and may do it badly.” As in life, so in startups.

Startups often have a sink-or-swim mentality that weeds out those not “flexible” or “driven” enough to deal with an ever-changing environment. In the early days I think this is understandable: you don’t have the time to help out others when you’re performing five roles and working dawn till dusk. However, as you start developing depth within your company and you begin to give away your Lego, a natural type of mentoring emerges. This mentoring, however, is mostly unplanned and piecemeal, and lots of startup employees don’t receive any mentoring at all. Those doing the mentoring – founders, teammates, and bosses – rarely understand their role and may do it badly. (Remind you of something?)

Mentorship is an incredibly important part of growing from a startup into a successful company. One of the strongest motivators for someone to join a new company is to learn from the experienced team that they are joining. Being able to provide them with the mentorship to effectively make that happen is an important part of making sure that people are happy and engaged in the work that they are doing.

We’ve long understood the value of mentorship when bringing a new person into the fold at Canva, and we’re constantly on the lookout for team members who exhibit the skills and the empathy to be able to effectively shepherd a newcomer through the quirks and challenges of joining a fast-growing startup. But it feels like we’ve levelled up recently and have really discovered the power of mentorship for everyone in the company; to continually help everyone with what they do, no matter how long they’ve been there or how “senior” they might be.

I’ve certainly taken a much more purposeful approach in my role as a mentor at Canva. This has not only helped me to be clearer about what outcomes my mentees can expect from our relationship, but it has also helped me structure my time more effectively as well. One of the biggest things I struggle with as the company grows is to split my time between helping others and working on the ideas/designs/prototypes that will guide the future of the product. By aiming to become a more effective and efficient mentor it also helps me to give more time to focused individual work, which is one of the areas that I draw my greatest satisfaction from.

One approach that I’m taking towards mentoring at the moment was drawn from Cynthia Maxwell’s approach to tracking flow. It basically tracks a person’s challenge levels versus their skill development and helps uncover any overly stressful period or waning of interest, in a way that is personalised to them. I’m still in the early stages of rolling it out, but hopefully as we gather more longitudinal data together it will help me spot any patterns in my team members’ motivations and help them find work that they find both challenging and rewarding. It has elements of both mentoring and coaching in it, but I think that distinction is best left for another post.

If you have any tips for mentoring (particularly in the fields of design and product) then I’d love to hear about them.