The Best Mentor Award at this year’s SPARKies went to Verity McIntosh. The award recognises the individual or organisation that has truly gone over and above to advise and support a tech company or individual to achieve success in the South West digital and tech sector.

The word mentor can be an ambiguous term. It’s not always a clear cut, formal arrangement between two individuals – often the relationship is established on a nuanced mutual understanding.

We wanted to find out more about what it’s like to be a mentor, and how to seek one out to help in the progression of your career, so we caught up with Verity to do just that.

Pull up a stool

So what is the role of a mentor? Verity says, “For me at least, it tends to start with small gestures; offering to talk through something that feels intractable, making an email introduction on behalf of someone with a question, to someone else who I know will have a better answer.

“Or even walking a couple of bag of sweets around the office and stopping a little longer at the desk of the person who looks the most exhausted by the idea of having to choose between Skittles and Maltesers.”

Verity talks about her time as Managing Producer at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio. She tells us, “We had a policy that everyone was ‘professionally interruptable’.”

This idea worked so well as there was a general acceptance that everyone was there to learn from one another and to offer critical feedback on anything that was necessary.

Verity says, “I used to keep a little stool next to my desk so that at any point a studio resident could just pull up a pew and fire a ‘quick question’ at me for as long as it took.”

And whilst she is now a Senior Lecturer in Virtual and Extended Realities at UWE Bristol, she hasn’t abandoned this willingness to collaborate and help: “The stool has graduated to a swivel chair, and I am much more likely to be found wearing my noise-cancelling headphones these days, but the same basic principles apply and I am always available for chats and to signpost/support/sympathise as needed.”

Verity explains how the environment of the Bristol VR Lab helps her to maintain this philosophy. She talks of her work with students too and about ensuring that they feel like valued members of the community.

She says, “Part of the culture we set for the course means that they, along with anyone else in the lab, can grab me for a chat more or less any time, and importantly vice versa.

“It’s not as altruistic as it sounds, this is my favourite and easily the most efficient way to learn about new things and spot new opportunities.”

Perks of the job

Being a mentor is not an easy role to maintain. It comes with a host of responsibilities and involves a lot of dedication, but this is balanced out with the rewards of the job.

Verity tells us, “There is something amazing about being trusted. To have people I respect take a deep breath and just hang it all out, warts and all, and ask for my opinion on what to do next, that’s pretty incredible.

“It’s a huge responsibility, and I worry about giving people a bum steer all the time. But when I see that something I may have done or said has made a difference, especially in challenging times, it makes my day.”

What people come to Verity with is vastly varied, however, she says, “some of the more common ones are; talking through new ideas, finding collaborators, identifying and applying for relevant funding or investment, company structure, business planning.

“There are also tasks like sense checking something important they are about to do/release/publish, and increasingly, what to do about the palpable imposter syndrome that comes with being suddenly recognised for something you don’t feel you’ve even got a handle on yet. I can relate.”

Seeking out a mentor

The idea of a mentor sounds very appealing to most people: having someone to guide your career in the right direction and moan to every so often? Who would say no!

Finding the right mentor for you is not always as simple though. Verity tells us, “I would recommend looking for someone who will give you a fresh perspective on the thing you do. It helps if they have an established network in the thing that you are doing, or seeking to do, and are excited to involve you in that network.”

Asking someone to act as your mentor can be nerve-wracking too. Verity’s advice is to put yourself in their shoes: “Most people are tickled pink to be considered ‘mentor-material’ and I’d hazard a guess that very few people object to being asked.”

20190627 – Sparkies Awards Assembly Rooms Bath by @JonCraig_Photos 07778606070

She says rather than going in for the ultra-formal route you should, “Start small: ‘can I buy you a coffee and pick your brains about something’ is more likely to land.”

It is also important to not hang onto a relationship that doesn’t work for you both. Understand the word no – Verity explains, “This is not one of those creepy boombox under the window things. It has to work for both of you or it won’t work at all.”

And finally, “Try not to think of a mentor relationship as a one-way street. Some of the best ones for me have shifted over time to become really meaningful and mutually supportive. Several of the people who would say that at one point I was their mentor, now are incredible mentors to me.

“Right, that’s enough made up wisdom from me. I just want to say a huge thank you to all of the awesome people who have mentored me over the years, and to the amazing humans that I get to work with now. And of course, to the unendingly powered up civic battery pack that is TechSPARK, for this super lovely award.”

Thanks to Verity for taking the time to talk to us – and congratulations for winning the Best Mentor Award!

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to. She also oversees TechSPARK's social media, sharing the latest updates on everything from investment news to green tech meetups and inspirational stories.