No mentor? No problem
Let me start by saying that having a mentor is a wonderful thing. I constantly hear stories of amazing people who attribute a big part of their success to someone in their professional life that showed them the ropes, sponsored them, and gave them invaluable advice when they needed it.
At the same time, I see a lot of designers who are early in their career and they are very eager to find a mentor. Some of them seem to be under the impression that a mentor is the key to success. Sheryl Sandberg addresses this in her book Lean In: “… searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” My message to those designers is: you’ll be fine. Here are a few thoughts…
Don’t underestimate the value of being on your own
My very first job fresh out of school was at a tiny creative agency where I was the only designer. I had literally zero professional experience and I was assigned a range of web and graphic design tasks that ranged from corporate websites to printed catalogs and brochures. If I didn’t know how to do something, I didn’t have anyone to ask for help, which means I had to figure things out on my own. Many times I felt stressed, frustrated, and overwhelmed. Looking back, I believe it was the best way to kick off my career. I was able to build one of the most important skills a designer can have: hustle.
Do a good job and build good relationships – the mentoring will come
The best career investment you can make is to be the person who everyone is rooting for. You might not be the best designer in your company or in your team (at least not yet), but if you show dedication, good values, and strong work ethics, people around you will want to help you succeed. They will likely be glad to provide support and advice when you need it and they will be happy to see you get promoted and do well for yourself. Some of the best mentor-mentee relationships happen organically, without you even searching for it.
Beware of bad mentors
It happens with jobs, with business partners, with dates. When you are too eager to make something happen, you might end up in a bad match situation. Mentors are no exception. There are different styles, but generally, a good mentor will give you guidance, not orders, and encourage you to think on your own and make your own decisions. Sometimes, someone might have the best intentions at heart, but their idea of mentoring is for you to do exactly as they say. In those cases, it will be up to you to distinguish good advice from bad advice and act accordingly. Listen to your mentor, but always follow your gut.
Just to be clear, if a good mentoring opportunity presents itself, you should totally go for it. Many companies these days have formal mentoring programs — we have a very successful peer mentoring program at Cisco Umbrella (formerly OpenDNS) and it part of my job as a design leader and people manager to mentor my team. But if you are unable to find a formal mentor, do not despair — the learnings will come. Many times, from unexpected places.