Mentoring as an Investment

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Have you ever asked for an update on a project you’d invested a great deal of time and energy in, only to hear “they have completely redesigned it since then”?

I did, and it left me with this very empty feeling.

After some wallowing, I realized I needed to discover a new way to think about the way I work and what really matters in my consulting career. My answer: The mark of a truly good consultant is investing in people. Focusing on investing in people will ensure that your work will still continue to see results long after the application is redesigned, and that is change that matters in the long run.

In the following article, I will give three areas in which we can focus our efforts: mentoring, client education, and our own team members. I hope that the reflection will help us all be better consultants and make better investments.

Client mentoring as an investment

There are often opportunities for us to invest in “client side” people, but they might not be readily apparent. I will give two examples of this.

On a recent project, I was the designer paired with a recently-hired UX director, who was a little bewildered still by the new gig. When we talked, it became apparent that what he needed was someone to mentor him in an intentional way because he was overwhelmed and feeling lost.

I spent lunches with this gentleman talking about UX strategy, how my company had handled process definition, and I eventually worked on a project where I invited him to come do user research with me.

Now mind you, this mentoring was not the part of any statement of work. This was something I did because it was the right thing to do. It was an opportunity to make an investment much bigger than the project at hand—and to see someone blossom right before your eyes makes the time investment very much worthwhile.

By the end of the client engagement, he was extremely thankful to have had someone invest time in him, to point him in the right direction—which allowed him to lead the UX capability much better than he was before. It turned out to be the most satisfying work I had done in ages. Fortunately, both my company and the client were extremely appreciative of the time spent with their people.

A second example is on the implementation side. I was the interface developer for an intranet project, and the client had a talented UI person who had questions about the CMS and approach we were using. To complicate the situation, we came to the project after they fired another firm for an inability to deliver. This woman had been given poor advice by the previous vendor, and she naturally had lots of questions about how to do the implementation the right way. It is easy to become exhausted with external consultants, and I wanted to ensure that she and their team quickly came to trust us to deliver.

I set up bi-weekly meetings with her throughout the four month implementation. Before we even started development, she and I mapped out the scope of the work and talked about all kinds of details, down to and including minutia like CSS class names. The regular meetings gave her a chance to see and give input throughout the entire process.

Another advantage of this approach—beyond those that accrue through collaboration—was that there was no big knowledge handoff at the end. It was something that was built into the project from the beginning.

As companies become more lean, we can get a double benefit of increased collaboration and knowledge sharing: First, we spend far less time writing copious documentation because we have been sharing all along, and second, the solution has a much greater chance for long-term success due to our time spent investing in these individuals who take over after we leave.

Client education as an investment

We can also educate clients even if they are not themselves in the UX world. A big intranet project I worked on was scoped to be responsive, but it became very apparent in the beginning that the design that went into it was not done in the best way for my company to implement; it was not designed in a mobile-first fashion.

I had two options: Either I just let it go, do my work, and move on; or, I could take the time to reach out to the client and educate them. I knew that this project was already moving forward, but I could set up a foundation for this client’s future success.

One thing to gauge is whether the client is even interested in such a relationship. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, clients are only interested in timelines and not interested in spending lots of billable time learning or re-learning.

And I had to ask: What did I value? Was I only in it for the money, or could I help enact lasting change and provide real value?

This client was not himself a UX practitioner, and he was looking for someone to be the expert he could trust. Working with non-UX people is a challenge, because you have to sell them a bit harder on why doing things the right way is important, even when they do not understand the implications or appreciate the time necessary to do it the right way.

I pulled him aside in a couple of private meetings and talked about everything with him, from defining responsive design correctly, understanding mobile-first design, and even things like home page carousel use and abuse. In the end, it not only furthered our relationship, but it afforded me a high level of trust and rapport with the client.

This particular client was open to the discussion and was even excited about extending the relationship, but if you have a hesitant client, don’t give up on them. Show them the quantifiable benefits of this increased collaboration by pointing to your experience in the past, or that the time they spend with you learning will only pay dividends in the future.

Remember that even if things aren’t changeable in the short term, you can make investments in people for the next project and longer term.

Teams as an investment

There is one last, important group we can’t forget: our co-workers. These are the people that become like a family in ways our clients never will. Project after project, these are the people we are tasked to work with, and in some ways these are often the most strategic people to invest in but also sometimes the most difficult to do it with because we can so easily overlook them.

During my firm’s adoption of the CSS preprocessor SASS, my team was mostly junior people who were looking for leadership in all kinds of areas. This time, I was given the opportunity to help others use this powerful tool. I took the lead in understanding its implications and how to use it in our teams, and then I spent concentrated time with each member of the UX team to help them understand how to use the technology in both a programmatic and process way. Taking advantage of opportunities like these furthers your relationship with your team members and demonstrates to them that you care deeply about their professional development.

To this day, those team members reach out to me with questions and best practices due to the trust gained through leading in this way. It is amazing how doing this even on a detail like a CSS preprocessor can assist your team members greatly.

We all have different motivations for doing the work that we do, and I imagine that for most of us money—as good as money is—is not the primary factor. Instead, very talented people tend to thrive on being an expert, enacting change, and leading others. True leaders are not given an opportunity to lead—they find those opportunities. Leading inside your organization will make you as close to irreplaceable as you can get.


  1. This article boils down to saying that a lead consultant should mentor clients and team members. I don’t really see anything new or insightful about this at all. The only difference is that the term “investment” is applied as a veneer to describe basic consulting skills 101.

    Worse still is that the author then claims that these fundamental skills “will ENSURE your work will continue to see results.” This is pure hyperbole. Conveniently, this article only describes successful examples of collaboration and knowledge-sharing. In the real world of consulting, like in finance, there is a big difference between SPECULATION and INVESTING. A more expository discussion would have included *speculating* on people – taking chances, sharing information and best practices – *without* necessarily receiving anything in return. This happens every day, with all kinds of people and projects. You share ideas with a client and they take them to another agency. You train an employee and they leave for another company. So I am really surprised that any experienced consultant would claim that mentoring and education are “investments” that will “ensure” positive results.
    Really a one-sided, happy-path article in my opinion, sorry.

  2. Hey William, thanks for your comment though. I just started writing some blogs so I’ll definitely be much more critical to my own writing now.

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