During GDC 2023 attendees learned about the importance of mentorship, that is, best practices for mentoring others in your field and how to find those key relationships to advance your own career. Leading the talk on this subject were speakers Jenn Panattoni, Latoya Peterson, Kahlief Adams, and Meggan Scavio, with moderator Jim Huntley, who had some advice to share about how to approach others for professional advice, and how to stand out to attract the type of sponsorship that will help you make the connections you need for the future. Here are some of their key talking points.
What are the best practices for professional mentorship?
the beginning of the talk largely covers how each of the panelists has either mentored or been helped by mentors during their career, citing the ability to identify and help other people avoid certain professional pitfalls as being a huge part of their success. Scavio, who (full disclaimer) used to run GDC, illustrates how positively impacting the diversity in your immediate workplace may mean paying attention to finer details and helping your mentees get up to speed, as with her former efforts with the organization to diversify its speaker pool by assisting with things like public speaking training, travel fees and head shots.
This brings up the topic of sponsorship versus mentorship, and what that means on the commitment level when assisting others within your career field. Mentors often act as an informal sounding board, whereas a sponsor "will speak your name in a room of opportunities," as Peterson puts it. A mentorship tends to be a private relationships whereas a sponsor will put you up for things like fellowships and job openings. Seek out both, as both are necessary for your career advancement, advises Peterson.
As for how you gain a sponsorship, that's a little trickier. As Scavio points out, one obstacle to forming these sorts of relationships, especially mentor to mentee, is the necessary time commitment. And sponsorships, as Peterson points out, are more of a situation where you will be approached within your company or inspire others to begin advocating for your privately by the quality of your work. "...I started to spot the pattern where someone is in the background acting as my sponsor." To get that attention, she says, "generally what you're doing is you're showing up with your A game, where you're making sure you distinguish yourself in the room, you're making sure that people can see you and the work that you're doing. You're making sure you won't embarrass someone so when someone's thinking about an opportunity, they're like, "that's the person that I want." And making sure that when someone you know makes a connection for you or does something for you that you're going the extra mile because it's a reflection on them as well as you. But," she stresses, they're not someone you approach, they'll approach you based on effort. "Sponsors always come to pick me."
Peterson also advocates for larger companies making their mentorship more formalized in order to cut down on some of the social pitfalls like unconscious bias that might be affecting the selection process. "I would highly suggest, especially if you've run a larger studio, being able to put something in where there's like check in times and structure because very hard, particularly as a junior employee, to understand and how to get time with people, what they're looking for what they're asking for. So like a program helps to make that playing field a little bit more even."
As for approaching others for mentorship, Adams says to be mindful of people's time by knowing what sort of advice you need before you approach them. "You have to have those conversations in your head; you have to potentially rehearse some of that stuff and get it ready. You're pitching someone on their time and their knowledge, to a certain extent. So that's a big part of the conversation is like, have your stuff on point, understand exactly what you need. And then give them the option to kind of bridge off of the things that you're asking for, so that you don't get the yes or no, it's the 'oh, how can I help you find x', which is the bigger layer of that conversation."
Peterson echoes that advice, stressing that your mentors are often very busy people and that you need to be respectful of their time, especially because it's a two-way relationship, and your mentor may be your professional peer one day. "The best thing you can do is be direct, be respectful, pour into them, because also a lot of times when someone selects you to mentor, they're getting something from you as well.
For more discussion on the nuances and challenges of both providing mentorship and finding the mentorship you need, watch the rest of the talk above.