Testimonials

Mentorship and the Changing Nature of Work: An interview with Lyft’s Alyssa Schwartz

By Tricina EllikerJanuary 18, 2017

Today is Thank Your Mentor Day and to celebrate, we’re sharing mentor and protégé stories to thank our community. 

In the summer 2013, Alyssa Schwartz had just moved to San Francisco to work for a local branding firm. One day, a giant, fuzzy pink mustache attached to the grill of a car whizzed past her on the street. “I thought it was a funny hipster car at the time because who else would put that on a car?” she says, laughing. When she saw a pink mustache on a different car in another part of the city, curiosity got the best of her. A quick Google search introduced Schwartz to her new favorite ridesharing company and she soon became the startup’s biggest brand advocate.

Before the year was over, Alyssa joined the small company’s 65 employees as an Account Executive. Three years later, Lyft is now 1,500 employees (not including drivers) spanning 200 cities—and growing fast. Schwartz is the Manager of Driver Growth and Acquisition, where she supports the company’s independent contractors as they learn the ropes at Lyft and build their businesses.

A large part of her role is overseeing the company’s mentorship program. Given the recent explosion of both ridesharing and the gig economy, Schwartz and her team are solving problems no one has encountered before. “We’re really building the plane as we’re flying it,” she says. “At most companies when you come across a problem you ask, ‘Okay how did someone solve this problem in the past?’ But here the answer is, ‘hmm, no one’s ever had this problem before.”

Schwartz isn’t just running a mentorship program, she’s also participated in an Everwise mentorship as a protege, which not only helped develop her skills as a new manager, but also gave her an entirely new lens through which to view mentorship. We asked Schwartz about her first mentorship, what she’s learned about becoming a great manager, and how she sees mentorship factoring into the gig economy.

Why is the mentorship program important for Lyft? How does it benefit the company?

As with any business with remote independent contractors, the people we rely on most to represent the brand have little or no ongoing contact with the company itself. New drivers get training materials and other support, but it’s not the same as onboarding onto a new team working with the same people every day. It’s very much an independent role. Having mentors means that our drivers can get that one-on-one support from someone who knows the job. Our mentors help drivers figure out where and when to drive to maximize profits, and share real-world experience that helps help our drivers learn how to run a business.

Do you see mentorship becoming the go-to way to build community and culture at remote companies?

For us it’s definitely a good way to establish that sense of community, which is so important. When we were smaller, it was so much easier for us to facilitate driver meetups. But now, as our driver population continues to grow, it has become more difficult to create those personal and lasting experiences for our drivers. As a company grows really quickly, you tend to lose some of your culture but mentors have the ability to bring that strong cultural connection. It’s important to have someone you can really talk to, someone who can help you work through problems.

What are the most challenging aspects of running the program?

When working with independent contractors, you can nudge them in the right direction with training, resources and advice, but we can’t really coach them in the way you would an employee at a traditional office. We have thousands of drivers nationwide and we don’t want to create specific molds of the perfect Lyft driver. When it comes to working with people, it’s really difficult to tell someone how to get 5-star rating every time. Every driver is different and so is every passenger.

Tell me about your own mentorship — what did you set out to work on with your Everwise mentor?

I had three main goals when I was partnered with Heather: Delegation, time management, and prioritization. I was a new manager and still relatively new to the professional world, so I didn’t have a ton of previous management experience to pull from. I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea that managers aren’t responsible for doing the work—they’re responsible for the work getting done. That is a very basic concept no one really tells you before you become a manager. I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a good manager and how to look out for the people on my team without sacrificing myself.

How did your mentor, Heather, help you with that transition?

We did a lot of role-playing, which was very helpful for me. I’m a hands-on learner and found that especially helpful for navigating difficult conversations like talking to someone about why they didn’t get a raise or delivering difficult feedback. That was a big concern for me, learning to better deliver feedback. Previously, it wasn’t something I was particularly good at or comfortable with, but since the partnership I’ve really come into my own. In fact, though it’s hard, I’ve grown to almost love giving feedback because people benefit from it so much. You’ll often hear, “Thank you for telling me this, I wish someone had told me this before.”

What advice would you give someone who wants to deliver better feedback?

You always want to start by asking if you can give someone feedback in the first place. That sounds silly, but it makes a difference. If you just start giving feedback, they’re more likely to feel attacked and defensive. By asking, you subconsciously open a person up to receiving feedback. I also think timing plays a big part too. It’s tempting to wait until the next one-on-one to mention something that happened in a previous meeting, but I try to pull them aside as soon as possible to talk it through. It’s helpful to have a specific example that’s still fresh in their mind. And, finally, always give feedback from a constructive place.

Looking back now that you’ve had a mentor yourself, has your perspective on mentorship changed at all?

One of my biggest takeaways from this experience is greater confidence. You shouldn’t need a mentor to tell you to have confidence in your abilities, but the reality is that new managers are often building a piecemeal approach based on their own observations. You find yourself pulling little tidbits observed from more experienced leaders at your company. You pay attention to the way your own manager interacts with you, and you start to watch relationships between managers and direct reports at your company. It’s hard to build confidence in yourself that way. You never know if you’re making the right decision. The fact that Heather had so much confidence in me and my decisions helped me understand that I should have confidence in my decisions too. Heather’s impact was really significant, not only for my confidence as a manager but also in cementing the value of mentorship itself.

Tricina Elliker

Tricina Elliker

Writer + Cofounder of The Den

About the Author

Tricina Elliker is a writer and content strategist, as well as co-founder of The Den, a boutique branding agency in Portland, Oregon.

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